I recently received the happy news that my article, ‘Material Worlds: The Shared Cultures of Southern Italy and its Mediterranean Neighbours in the Tenth to Twelfth Centuries’, will be published in the peer-reviewed journal Al-Masaq. Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, published by Routledge. It will appear in the third issue of volume 23 later this year.
I wrote the article based on a paper I gave at the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean conference in Exeter in July 2009. It compares the dress and textile cultures of southern Italy, Fatimid Egypt (through the Genizah document archives) and the heartlands of Greek Byzantium. Several points of similarity and affinity existed between the vestimentary systems of the ‘consuming classes’ of the Mediterranean in the central Middle Ages but there were also notes of difference that are illustrated in some of the comparisons I make. I argue for a more social anthropological approach to be taken with descriptions of dress and textiles and suggest that the Mediterranean does work as an heuristic device for such an exercise. We lose sight of comparisons when we only work within our disciplinary traditions, in this case, ‘western Latin’, ‘Byzantine’ and ‘Islamic’.
The most compelling aspect of working on this subject were the sources themselves. In Apulia in south-eastern Italy, as in the Genizah archives, a number of bridal trousseau lists are comprised in marriage contracts. Yet other parts of Europe and the Mediterranean are not so well documented when it comes to personal and family possessions. Why they were recorded in such detail in the charters and contracts of some regions but not others still remains a mystery. In Amalfi, on the Tyrrhenian cost, the duchy famed for its mercantile prowess, its charters are noticeably mute when it comes to inventories of objects transferred in wills and marriage contracts, or even disputed over. The Genizah documents, of which I did not have first-hand experience, but benefitted largely from the detailed analyses made by Yedida Stillman, record the material worlds of Arab Jews, mostly though not exclusively from Cairo (Fustat). However it has been argued that the dress choices of the Jewish ‘bourgeoisie’ at this time was largely the same as their Muslim counterparts. The evidence from the heartlands of the Byzantine Empire (Greek and Turkey today) is much more patchy, though no less compelling for the comparisons.
I have continued some of the themes raised in this article in another one I have recently written for a special issue of Medieval History Journal on the reception of Islamicate arts in western contexts. My article challenges notions of ‘reception’ and ‘western contexts’ by again adopting a comparative Mediterranean context and urges again for a more empathetic view of the material culture of the past. Let’s look at it, or try and look at (and feel) it from the point of view of the people who used these objects, and reach beyond the dehumanising art historical typologies we are used to discussing objects within.