The project proposes a reassessment of the role played by the largest islands of Byzantine Mediterranean as “gateway communities”, actively and creatively promoting social contact and cultural interchange; it also aims at exploring the importance islands like Crete, Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia, Malta and the Balearics had as hubs of connectivity where Islamic and Byzantine cultures encountered and impinged upon “insular” political, economic and social structures of the Middle Ages.
In fact, historical or socio-anthropological studies of islands (like those of Evans and partially Broodbank) have often described insular sites as relatively distant and peripheral spaces, limited in size and therefore prone to hosting impoverished and unproductive social relations . Other scholars (like Rainbird) have instead preferred to dwell upon their supposed isolation as a spur to the creation of peculiar and distinctive social structures, characterized by their lack of contact with other people. In both instances, the role of islands and their inhabitants has been diminished, with their material culture often labelled as exotic and alien to developments on the continents, the analysis of their socio-political structures engulfed in the endless debate opposing centers to peripheries, and, finally, their economic importance limited to their role as hubs across maritime routes.
In this light, islands have been pictured as liminal spaces, identified as frontiers between two irreconcilable or at best conflicting worlds. In this way – and in the medieval period in particular – Mediterranean islands have often been overlooked or simply labeled as outposts of self-sufficiency, ideal spots of exile, secluded outliers of political and religious “conservativism”, and if ascribed a strategic role at all, that limited to their importance as military outposts.
The current project instead takes a diverse approach to the problem of islands. First, it emphasizes the importance of moving beyond the simple concept of insularity and promotes the alternative notion of “islandness” as describing the political changes, social constructions and cultural perceptions that characterized insular spaces. In other words, we should see “insularity as the dynamic relationship that has evolved between an insular space and the society living in it.” (Veikou 2015). With this in mind, this project focuses on the peculiar role, which different insular contexts played in the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages. This period is, after all, crucial to the history of the Great Sea, as the unique political and economic unity brokered by the Roman Empire was split by the new ideological border between Islam and Christendom. The most recent work on the period has thus drawn a picture of a changing Mediterranean, tossed between the hegemonic intentions of conflicting polities.
We are thus compelled to look at the history of the Great Sea in the longue durée, although with a more distinctly socio-economic optic than the one famously proposed by Braudel. What emerges is the construction of a shared medieval Mediterranean world marked by periods of intensification of conflict (with Islam expanding until the late eighth century and the Byzantine Empire on the offensive in the eleventh and twelfth century, with the Western “interlude” of the Crusades representing another) interspersed with others during which exchanges and conflict coexisted as maritime trade stimulated competition for the control of strategic harbors and shipping routes (Valèrien 2014, 77-8).
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