Negotiating Identities: Expression and Representation in the Christian-Jewish-Muslim Mediterranean

NEH Summer Institute for College and University Teachers
Barcelona 5 July – 1 August, 2015
Directors: Brian A. Catlos and Sharon Kinoshita
Sponsored by: University of California, Santa Cruz & University of Colorado Boulder

Overview, Aims, About the Institute, Faculty & Directors, Participants, Course Structure, Units, Projects, Libraries and Archives


Our Institute involves a rethinking of the history of the later Middle Ages (c. 1000–1500) through the optic of the Mediterranean, emphasizing questions of religious and ethnic pluralisms, cultural contact, hybridity, transculturation, and the negotiation of identities. Rather seeing the Mediterranean merely as the arena of conflict and contact between monolithically-conceived cultures (e.g. Muslim, Christian, Jewish, European, African, Middle Eastern), it takes as its starting point the dynamics and structures common to each of these as they engaged with one another. As a region whose history of connectivity can be documented over at least two and a half millennia, the Mediterranean has recently become the object of innovative scholarship in various disciplines that shifts attention from the internal structure and development of discrete entities (political states, ethnic or religious groups, cultural traditions) to a study of interconnectedness and dynamics of interaction. The emphasis on contact and circulation invites a nuanced reconsideration of recent (and not-so-recent) conceptualizations of modes of interaction between Christian, Muslim, and Jewish societies. Paradoxically, the medieval Mediterranean, often cast as a site of the origin of Christian-Muslim hostility in the form of the Crusade, has also been idealized as the site of “convivencia” – the harmonious coexistence of Christian, Islamic, and Judaic cultures. The facility with which ideas, cultural practices, and technologies traversed the Mediterranean is testament to the commonalities underlying the formal divisions between ethnic and religious groups. At the crossroads of northern European, African, and Middle Eastern cultures, linked (via long-distance trade) to South and East Asian, African and northern European, the Mediterranean played a key role in the emergence of the modern West in ways Mediterranean Studies has recently begun to document.

In the last decade, Mediterranean Studies has emerged as an important interdisciplinary teaching and research field, as attested by the proliferation of Mediterranean Studies groups, conferences, institutes, journals, and publications series, as well as the growing number of academic positions in history, art history, literature, and philosophy being framed in terms of the pre-modern Mediterranean, both in the US and abroad. Catlos and Kinoshita—both in their individual research and especially through their multiple collaborative projects—have systematically sought to develop the potential of Mediterranean Studies as a forum for making visible the connections, commonalities, and conflicts that otherwise fall between the cracks of disciplinary boundaries, and have become leaders in this new and exciting, interdisciplinary field.

In this vision, Mediterranean Studies is not limited to the study of those times and places that produced articulations (geographical, historiographical, cartographical) of the region as a whole. Nor is the Mediterranean treated as an area with fixed geographical boundaries, or as a unified, much less essentialized, culture. Rather, we take the Mediterranean as an area whose distinctive geography of fragmented, and therefore interdependent micro-regions has produced a pattern of ever-shifting interconnections accommodating populations of mixed religion, ethnicity, language, and much else. While sometimes leading to political and ideological polarization, these kaleidoscopic variations also lend themselves to what Catlos has described as “mutual intelligibility” across some of the categories central to more traditional medieval historiographies. This helps to account for the currents of innovation and synthesis that transformed medieval Europe: the adoption of Greek and Arabo-Islamic science and medicine, the monotheistic re-configuration of Aristotelian philosophy, the translation and adaptation of literary works and styles, and the ease with which Muslim and Christian powers could engage with each other and incorporate ethnic and religious out-groups (notably Jews) in their societies and institutions. Mediterranean Studies thus encourages the exploration of contact and exchange not only in political, economic, and religious spheres (diplomacy, long-distance trade, shared currents of legalism or mysticism across confessional lines), but also in literary, artistic, and cultural ones (the translation of texts, circulation of decorative arts, and transmission of styles and ideas).

This is a perspective that over the last ten years has captured the imagination of scholars, both in their research and their teaching. However, even for today’s medievalists— increasingly trained in comparative work—working across national and confessional traditions remains challenging. This Institute provides participants with the conceptual and methodological tools to engage effectively with Mediterranean Studies as a frame for both research and teaching, and introduces them to practical work being carried out in a number of disciplines, represented in the research of our diverse faculty.

Project Aims

  • To encourage understanding of cultural interaction and creation in the multi-confessional Medieval Mediterranean
  • To encourage interdisciplinary research and teaching that crosses and challenges national and ecumenical divisions.
  • To give college and university professors and highly-qualified graduate students the opportunity to study and to work collaboratively under leading scholars in a range of fields.
  • To Give participants the opportunity to use the archive, libraries and facilities available in Barcelona.

About the Institute

  • Organized by the Mediterranean Seminar, a forum for promoting research and teaching in the emerging discipline of Mediterranean Studies.
  • Our third NEH Summer Institute on Mediterranean Studies to be held in Barcelona (click for detailed information and reviews of our 20082010, and 2012 Institutes.)
  • Once again, our faculty includes some of the most creative and exciting scholars in the field. 
  • Includes a varied program of presentations, seminars, collaborative and technical workshops, field trips, aprés-Institute, and plenty of time for independent reading and research.

Faculty & Directors


Bernadette AndreaHeather BadamoLuigi Andrea Berto, Heather BlurtonTravis BruceAlbert ClassenAmbereen DadabhoyAdriano Duque, Claire Gilbert, Robin William GirardDawn Marie HayesDaniel HershenzonDeeana KlepperMatthew B. LynchSusan McDonoughLouis X. MoreraNicholas ParmleyMarta Albalá PelegrínJennifer PruittDwight Reynolds, Peter F. Schadler, Sarah Davis-SecordTimothy SmitAbbey StockstillAnne Marie Wolf

Course Structure

The Institute combines colloquia, lectures, workshops and independent study.  Each participant will be expected to attend the formal study sessions, and work on a project of his or her own proposing.

The course is divided into three broad thematic units (see below). There will be two faculty for each unit, each of whom will present one formal colloquium and moderate two workshop sections, each with 12 participants. The final week will consist of workshops under the guidance of the Co-Directors, and participant presentations. In addition, guest faculty from Barcelona will give presentations on the Archive of the Crown of Aragon, and themes related to each unit.

There will be optional hands-on introductions to the Archive of the Crown of Aragon for those interested in undertaking archival research.

Two “field trips” are planned: a walking tour in Barcelona and a trip to Girona.  At the moment these are tentative, contingent on budgetary factors.  The Institute may not be able to cover the full cost of these activities.

The language of the workshops and colloquia will be English.

Location & Facilities

The Institució Milà i Fontanals of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (Spain's national research council) is located near Barcelona’s Old City. The Institució is about 25 minutes by foot from the Barcelona Resident.

Unit I (July 6th- July 10th): Thinking Mediterranean
What characterized culture and identity in the medieval Mediterranean? Our 2015 Institute, “Negotiating Identities,” is organized around the conceit of “lines”–how the lines scholars use to delineate the Mediterranean and its ethno-religious identities are drawn, how to read between them, and how they can be blurred. Unit I introduces the Institute’s two main themes: ethno-religious diversity and Mediterranean culture. This week the Co-Directors will serve as Institute’s principal faculty, delivering introductory talks that frame the Institute theme in terms of their own scholarly perspectives: Brian Catlos on minority-majority relations and intergroup dynamics and Sharon Kinoshita on cultural identity and textual production. In addition, each will lead two seminar discussions: Catlos on the emergence of a medieval “Mediterranean culture” and its implications for intergroup relations, and Kinoshita on the ways literary texts reflect, inflect, and transmit that culture.

Unit II (July 13th-17th): Blurring the Lines
How do differentiated ethno-religious and political identities participate in a Mediterranean of shared styles, tastes and values? Following on the historical and literary emphases of Unit I, Unit II turns to material culture and art. Cecily Hilsdale, an expert in the arts of the Byzantine empire, examines how medieval Mediterranean identities are negotiated through objects of exchange—portable things, “minor arts,” or “ars sacra.” By focusing on the movement of sumptuous art objects as they crossed cultural and confessional lines, her work brings conceptual issues of cross-cultural exchange to the concrete level of material culture, drawing on anthropologists of the object who study the “social lives of things” and literary theorists who study “thing theory.” She will focus in particular on silk as a commodity and object of desire and value across the Mediterranean. Marcus Milwright brings his archaeological expertise to bear on examples of what might be defined in modern parlance as propaganda – artifacts meant to convey messages to the inhabitants of a given polity and to potential enemies or allies–to question how effective a tool visual culture was in communicating political and religious ideologies. Examples will range from quotidien objects, such as dinnerware, to monumental architecture, such as the Dome of the Rock, in order to tease out the relationship between aesthetic style, cultural identity, and religio-political ideology in a Mediterranean of overlapping and integrated communities.

Unit III (July 20th-24th): Marking Boundaries
How did the affinity and difference that simultaneously characterized Mediterranean religious, intellectual, and literary cultures interact? Unit III examines the geography of textual and oral transmission in the high medieval Mediterranean, showing how the nuances and nature of ethno-religious interaction can be gleaned from the comparative reading of texts that, viewed in isolation, seem to portray identity as discrete. John Tolan, the foremost authority on Christian perceptions of Muslims and Jews from the eleventh to fourteenth centuries, will discuss the situation of subject minorities before the law in the Christian and Islamic Mediterranean and the interplay between oppressive or marginalizing ideological tendencies and currents that advocated for toleration and legal integration. He will examine the contrast between the urge of legists to regulate relations between members of different faiths, and the interpretation scholars and judges made of these laws in ways intended to facilitate integration. Thomas Burman is a leading authority on Muslim-Christian polemic and intellectual exchange in the Western Mediterranean and the translation of Muslim religious works (particularly the Qu’ran) into Latin. Through the example of the thirteenth-century missionary and polemicist Ramon Martí, he will examine how the translation movement involving Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic texts influenced the development not only of scientific and philosophical thought but also notions of ethno-religious identity: how, for example, Latin translations of the Arabic adaptations of Aristotle and other thinkers affected Christian perceptions of Islam.

Unit IV (July 27th-July 31st): Towards the New Mediterranean Studies
What does Mediterranean Studies bring to our understanding of ethno-religious relations and cultural development? This week’s program consists of workshops and discussions, directed by Catlos and Kinoshita, that review and synthesize the preceding weeks’ presentations and situate them in relation to their own theoretical and comparative work. The aim is to help participants assimilate the materials covered as they finalize their individual projects, relating the implications of the Institute to their own pedagogy and research. The program concludes with presentations of the participants’ projects in a two-day “mini conference” (a change enacted at our 2012 Institute that clearly enhanced our participants’ experience). Besides giving the Summer Scholars the opportunity to share their work formally, it allows Catlos and Kinoshita to guide discussions of particular case studies toward the larger questions at the heart of the Institute. We conclude with a closing dinner and ceremony to celebrate and cement the personal and professional relationships forged over the course of the four weeks and to mark the beginning of new collaborations among our Participants.

Libraries & Archives:

Using archives and libraries in Barcelona: Most archives and libraries require official ID; you may be asked to show your passport. Library and archive hours vary; in July some open only during the morning (until 2pm).