It is this journal’s ambition to foster multidisciplinary scholarship on the world in the period 750-1600, to showcase innovative research and approaches to pedagogy beyond medieval and Renaissance Studies’ traditional areas of focus, and to provide a forum for the fruitful discussion of the interconnection of broad regions and of meaningful comparison across diverse sites and contexts. We are proud to present in this second issue a selection of articles, essays, and reviews that do this and more.
The issue opens with Fred Astren’s “The Gibeonite Gambit: Ḥarrānians, Karaites, and Khaybarī Jews on the Margins of Medieval Islamic Society,” which invites us to reflect on the uses of the past in the creation and development of group identities and on the power of established narratives. It examines how three non-Muslim minority groups, the Sabians (or “pagans” of Ḥarrān), the Karaite Jews, and the Khaybarī Jews made use of stories of their pasts before Muslim authorities in order to pursue their interests. Despite being separated by time and geography, the three cases relied on what Astren identifies as a “Gibeonite Gambit”: the attempt by each group to utilize knowledge of Muslim religious and political culture to deliberately misrepresent itself and its past in order to seek advantage vis-à-vis the dominant group and other minorities. This is in a manner reminiscent of the machinations of the Gibeonites before the Israelites of the Book of Joshua in the Hebrew Bible. Each case, carefully charted through successive retellings and interpreted from the varied perspectives of the different actors involved, provides valuable insight into the complex processes by which these stories were layered, interwoven, and rewritten by different authors over generations and into the place that they occupied in the formation and development of identities both from within and without.
Just as Astren encourages us to be sensitive to the dynamics of power and negotiation involved in the production of narratives, the second article in this issue reminds us of the importance of reassessing some of the legacies of long established historiographical paradigms in the study of the Indian Ocean world. In “A Subcontinent in Enduring Ties with an Enclosed Ocean (c. 1000-1500 C.E.): South Asia’s Maritime Profile ‘Before European Hegemony,’” Ranabir Chakravarti presents a comprehensive synthesis of the contours of this vast region across five centuries. This era has received little attention compared to the scholarly mainstain of the period following the arrival of Western Europeans after 1500, and the vibrant field of studies of the interaction between the Indian Ocean world and the Mediterranean in the four centuries after the incorporation of Egypt into the Roman sphere. Chakravarti invites us to appreciate the region’s specificity, from its complex geography and climate to the development of societies along its shores, combining the analysis of broad economic and societal trends with detailed insights into the experiences of individual ship-owners, exploring sources as varied as classical texts, maritime archaeology, and Genizah fragments. All the while, his article challenges previously established assumptions about the makeup and nature of movement and trade over these waters. Not only did Indic peoples take to the sea, contrary to perceptions that Brahmanical religious and cultural taboos had prevented it, but also the trade they engaged in was not restricted to luxury commodities.
The third and final article in this issue also brings a multidisciplinary approach to the study of key sources, in this case in a strikingly innovative way. In “Medieval Literature in Comparative Perspective: Language and Number in Sanskrit and Latin,” Alessandra Petrocchi examines late medieval treatises on arithmetic written in India and Western Europe. She focuses not on their mathematical features, as earlier scholars have done, but on their literary forms. Analysing these Sanskrit and Latin texts, the products of two distinct and dissimilar historical and textual cultures, in a comparative framework, her article challenges disciplinary boundaries and invites us to engage in comparative studies that include non-European traditions. It argues that the introduction of decimal place value system to Western Europe, developed in India and transmitted by Arab scholars, produced a paradigm shift in mathematics that had equally significant linguistic implications. It represented a fundamental change in the basic concepts of number and methods of calculation, until then based on Boethian arithmetic and Roman numerals, and necessitated the creation of neologisms and the re-sematicization of existing lexicons.
This issue also includes two essays with a special relevance for pedagogy. The first concerns Armenia!, the recent exhibition of the medieval art and culture of Armenian peoples held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York curated by Helen C. Evans. In her review, Heather Badamo reflects on their effort to “locate” a region whose complex history, continuously shifting borders, and mutable nature challenge easy categorization. For Badamo, this exhibition and its catalogue are a call for medievalists to rethink how we teach medieval art and to consider the extraordinary diversity, history, and artistic achievements of the Eastern Christian World.
The second, Derek Heng’s “Southeast Asia-China Economic Interactions in the Late First to Mid-Second Millennium C.E.: Narrative, Sources, and Pedagogical Objectives,” is a pedagogical essay that tackles head on some of the challenges in teaching the history of this vast region in the centuries before 1500. Rich with recommendations of topics to address, online sources to employ, and practical advice, we are certain this will be a valuable resource for surveys of world history.
Finally, this issue includes reviews of a broad range of important new books on Mesoamerica, the Andes, the Ottoman Mediterranean, and pedagogy.