Tag Archives: Julia McClure

Enlisting medieval history against the Islamic State

Every now and then most medieval historians must get told that their discipline is ‘useless’. Usually this is being done by politicians out to shrink budgets, and they think we’re an easy target, though as Charles Clark found out, sometimes we are better armed for that combat than they expect. (Much better therefore just to cut funding in secret, as Australia’s former education minister Simon Birmingham chose to! Although as far as I know medieval historians were not among the victims that time.) Nonetheless, history can get into trouble when it preaches its utility; perhaps that’s why the best such preach was by America’s finest news source, The Onion, rather than by an academic historian. Usually, though, the problems that history is called upon to address are much more current affairs than the medievalists can easily get purchase on. But an obvious exception was the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which it’s easy to find people calling ‘medieval’ without looking terribly hard. If this was a return of the Middle Ages to the world, what did medievalists have to say about it? In early 2016, as I mentioned, I got to hear two attempts, and they’re worth comparing, especially in the hindsight we now just about enjoy.1

Cover of Hugh Kennedy, The Caliphate (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2016)

Cover of Hugh Kennedy, The Caliphate (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2016)

First of these was by Professor Hugh Kennedy, at that stage just finishing up writing the above.2 He was keen to stress that there certainly were ways in which ISIS was medieval, not just because Islamic thought doesn’t necessarily impose the division of medieval from modern that Western thought does (on which more below), but because of conscious medievalism on the parts of the terrorists’ public image manufactory and even its deeper theology. The Qu’ran, after all, was written down in the (early) Middle Ages; most of the thought about it that ISIS used was also medieval hadith (in the western periodization in all cases), and its political claim to a caliphate, which regarded pretty much all other branches of Islam, as murtadis (apostates) or Rafidis (ISIS’s term for Shi’ites), required it to strike its root as early as possible in the succession to the Prophet, before those divisions had arisen; that first unity was what they professed to renew. Very few later heroic figures or thinkers therefore got into their theology, as those figures themselves were suspect. Now, that would place ISIS’s historical reference point somewhere around AD 650, but their visual imagery was very often taken from a century or two later, being pretty consciously ‘Abbasid.

ISIS jihadis posed for propaganda video on horseback with black banners

ISIS jihadis posed for propaganda video on horseback with black banners

Perhaps this doesn’t look that medieval to the outsider, but let me quote to you a story supposedly told by the first Umayyad Emir of Spain, of the time when he was feeling to Africa from the Middle East after his family had largely been exterminated by the ‘Abbasid rebellion of AD 750:

“As I was on a certain day sitting under cover of my tent, to shelter myself from the rain, which fell heavily, and watching my eldest son Sulaiman, then about four years old, who was playing in front of it, I saw him suddenly enter the door, crying violently; and, soon after, he ran towards me and clung to my bosom for protection. Not knowing what he meant, I pushed him away; but the child clung still more to me, as one seized with violent fear, and began uttering such exclamations as children are wont to utter when they are frightened. I then left the tent, that I might see what caused his fear; when lo ! I saw the whole village in confusion, and the inhabitants running to and fro in great consternation. I went a little further on, and saw the black banners fluttering in the wind. At sight of these a younger brother of mine, who had also rushed out of the tent, and was with me at the time, began to fly at the top of his speed, saying, ‘Away, away with thee, O brother! for yonder black banners are the banners of the sons of ‘Abbas.’ Hearing this, I hastily grasped some dinars which I had just at hand, and fled precipitately out of the village with my child and my younger brother.”3

You can read the rest of it yourself if you like, but suffice it to say, the brother doesn’t make it to the next scene. So this has resonance, and the people who set it up knew that. But more subtle than that, argued Hugh, was the vision put forward by ISIS’s erstwhile magazine, Dabiq. The name itself was a clue: it is a town on the Syrian-Turkish border, as I guess we now know because of the efforts ISIS made to take it, but it’s important to them because it was, according to one prophecy, where the final confrontation between Islam and ‘Rome’ (i. e. Byzantium, in its original context, but for ISIS basically the West) was to take place. Not many people knew that when the magazine started, I think, and this is apparently far from the only such reference, to apocalyptic lore or particular theological slurs or just plain Islamic knowledge.4 Hugh said that he had struggled to place some of them, and you’d think he would be well qualified. Now of course this raises the question: if an expert in Islamic history isn’t catching their full drift, who is the audience for this kind of highly erudite theology? Well, doubtless there were (and are) people who were drawn in by the theology itself, but what may also have been happening here was a performance of superior Islamic knowledge; the normal reader didn’t always know what they meant but he or she could see that the writers know their Islam a lot better than the reader, average or indeed expert… So this is medievalism put to work, whether we like it or not.

Seminar poster for Julia McClure, «A New Politics of the Middle Ages: A Global Middle Ages for a Global Modernity", presented at the Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 3 February 2016

A western view was more in evidence at Leeds on 3rd February 2016, however, when Julia McClure of the University of Warwick (then, anyway) came to address the Medieval History Seminar with the title, “A New Politics of Middle Ages: a global Middle Ages for a global modernity”.5 ISIS were only one of her examples of the ways in which modern political agendas appropriate the Middle Ages as a seat of all that was barbaric, cruel, irrational and so on. Despite my anciently mixed feelings about it I still think Kathleen Davis’s Periodization and Sovereignty has the best explanation of this I’ve read, suggesting that progress narratives work best if you’re pejorative about the state before and emphasise how far you’ve come and that winds up putting a barrier of transition between you and the past which it would be barbaric, irrational and undeveloped to breach. Then you can start applying the category to other places and taking them over because they’re not really politically grown up like what we are; sound familiar?6 Anyway, this was not where Dr McClure went with it, or with ISIS; instead she invoked the idea of ‘multiple modernities’, weakening the idea that our way of being modern is definitive and attempts by different competitors to claim the pinnacle from others; and we should admit that some modernities (for her, Marxism) have failed.7 Having done that, however—and for me this was where I felt a skip in the logic—we should choose to emphasise not the violence and conflict with which agencies like ISIS want to populate the medieval past and thus modernity, but the contact, inter-cultural transmission and general getting along between cultures that the Middle Ages can also exemplify, and let that be our message for those who would make the Middle Ages in their chosen anti-image.8

Mihrab in the Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba

Mihrab in the Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba, by Ingo Mehlingown work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Much of this was therefore familiar to me, but some of her examples were truly ill-chosen. Above, for example, we have some of the inside of the once-Mosque of Córdoba, which Dr McClure invoked as an example of cultural fusion. And in as much as there is Islamic-style architecture justly lauded in what is now a cathedral, yes, there is fusion there; but given that it was first converted into a mosque by coercion then recaptured by violence for Christianity some centuries later, soon after which all Muslims in the relevant country were given a choice between conversion or expulsion, I do think the context should change how we read this monument! And indeed, Dr McClure said it showed how even in periods of conflict cultures still interpenetrate, showing the power of contact to survive conflict, but, as Michael Berube once said Auerbach said, “Ew ew ew ew ew!” Is it then OK to conquer people and nick their stuff as long as it’s a cultural growth experience? This was a building repeatedly established by the assertion of domination over one group by another and it is exactly the sort of thing that ISIS used and use to make their audiences angry at the ‘Crusaders’.9 Other examples included the adoption of Byzantine modes of decoration in the Church of il Redentore in Venice borrowed from the Hagia Sophia in what’s now Istanbul; that’s true but the fact that the Venetians also sacked and took over the city from which they got the idea again spoils it as a multicultural example for me, you know?10

The Chiesa del Redentore, Venice

The Chiesa del Redentore, monument to successful colonialism! By Il_Redentore.jpg: Wknight94derivative work: Alberto Fernandez Fernandez (talk) – Il_Redentore.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The problem here for me is not that Dr McClure’s paper was inaccurate, therefore. It’s that to follow her lead would be simply to choose another dominant modernity, or medievalism indeed, which would trump what anyone else sees as important. It’s not ‘multiple’ at all and neither does it seem to me decolonised; it’s still the western liberal philosophy being rolled out as a model to elsewhere. Of course, I am myself an exponent and a beneficiary of that western liberal philosophy but my problem with the strategy, if we were supposed to be applying this to an entity like ISIS, is that they simply wouldn’t have cared. Even if they did, they had a good enough grasp of the history to assert their own dominant medievalism, and their version of history arguably involved less special pleading…

As I see it, the basic problem actually just comes down to a clash of two maxims. I am a big believer in the basic philosophy “do what thou wilt, an it harm none”, and not just because of the subjunctive in it, but it sometimes runs up hard against one I’ve seen attributed to Isaac Newton or Thomas Jefferson but have never been able to trace properly, which runs, “No man can have peace longer than his neighbour wishes”.11 What do you do when the other party doesn’t care about harming none? We could, I suppose, have tried to have video-conference debates with ISIS-inclined imams where we posed the western alternative and the virtues of inter-cultural tolerance and contact, and it would just have made it clearer how effective blowing up Palmyra would be in getting ‘Rome’ to commit forces for the final conflict. ISIS never wanted peace. Given that starting position, why would the ‘Crusader’ gospel of tolerance ever have been interesting to their potential supporters?

So the medievalists of 2016 didn’t really have the answers, it seems. I’ve explained why I think Dr McClure’s suggestions ineffective already, but even Hugh, famous for his knowledge in the field, had few suggestions to offer about how to contain ISIS beyond that we needed to understand what they were doing and that it was smart. That may, I suppose, have helped us avoid mistakes (like having white professionals preaching capitalist multi-culturalism to alienated near-jihadis) if taken up, but I don’t think even Hugh had a better proposal than ‘know your enemy’. I don’t think that’s quite what an attentive Onion reader would have hoped we might deliver. The question could of course be asked whether we should be expected to solve the world’s problems with our research, and I am of course on record with other reasons we might want historians, but the trouble is that the reply of our funding bodies, our lobbying groups and, indeed, our employers, would be a resounding yes; it’s all over their publicity and their themes of interest that solving the world’s problems is what academics are for. This was an obvious problem when the USA started recruiting anthropologist advisors to serve with the military, the weaselly-named Human Terrain System, but that pressure to help with what’s visibly wrong now is the same sort of thing, in as much as it channels our work towards contemporary political problems by throttling funding for anything else. But however you feel about the morality of it, I’m not always sure about the possibility of it, and I think these two papers showed that the closer one gets to trying to do it, the weaker one’s position becomes.

1. Of course some people have disagreed: see David M. Perry, “This is not the Crusades: There’s nothing medieval about ISIS”, News in CNN, 16 October 2016, online here, or Jason T. Roche, “Islamic State and the appropriation of the Crusades – a medieval historian’s take” in The Conversation, 12 July 2017, online here.

2. Hugh Kennedy, The Caliphate (Harmondsworth 2016), repr. as Caliphate: history of an idea (London 2016); there now exists a rival text in the form of David Wasserstein, Black Banners of ISIS: the roots of the new caliphate (New Haven 2017).

3. Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Maqqarī, The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain, extracted from the Nafhu-t-tíb min ghosni-l-Andalusi-r-rattíb wa táríkh lisánu-d-dín Ibni-l-Khattíb, trans. by Pascual de Gayangos, 2 vols (London 1840), II, online here, p. 59. Al-Maqqari is thankfully not the earliest historian to quote this story, given his eight-hundred-year distance from the events, but it’s almost certainly not contemporary; I think it does have to date to the Umayyad period in Spain, however, because why would you invent the story once the dynastic hero was no longer relevant?

4. By the time it fell, however, the legend was sufficiently well-known that it was left to Islamic troops—no ‘Crusaders’ or ‘Rumi’—to take the place.

5. This was, acknowledgedly, a presentation of an article that was by then in print, so you can see for yourself in Julia McClure, “A New Politics of the Middle Ages: A Global Middle Ages for a Global Modernity” in History Compass Vol. 13 (Oxford 2015), pp. 610–619, DOI: 10.1111/hic3.12280.

6. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia 2008), where pp. 62-74 show exactly this rhetoric being deployed by the English crown and the East India Company as they started their conquest of India, including invocations of ‘feudalism’.

7. McClure’s cite for the ‘multiple modernities’ idea is Arif Dirlik, “Global Modernity?: Modernity in an Age of Global Capitalism” in European Journal of Social Theory Vol. 6 (New York City 2003), pp. 275–292, DOI: 10.1177/13684310030063001), but in his defence, Dirlik warns against exactly the position I think Dr McClure reached.

8. Here, obviously, I would cite Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty or specifically for ISIS, Kennedy, Caliphate; Dr McClure’s cite was Michael Cook, Ancient religions, modern politics: the Islamic case in comparative perspective (Princeton 2014), which I admit I’ve not read.

9. A good essay on the symbolisms, and indeed chronology, of the building’s various existences is Nuha N. N. Khoury, “The Meaning of the Great Mosque of Cordoba in the Tenth Century” in Muqarnas Vol. 13 (Leiden 1996), pp. 80–98. If you prefer a more contemporary take, though, well, there’s me

10. And for a quick guide to this cultural aggressors’ church, there’s Deborah Howard, “Venice between East and West: Marc’Antonio Barbaro and Palladio’s Church of the Redentore” in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians Vol. 62 (Berkeley 2003), pp. 306–325.

11. I think, maybe, that I read it as a quote at the head of a chapter in a book by Gerald Durrell, in which case it is not impossible that he himself was the source. But I can’t find it, either way.

Chronicle III: January to March 2016

I’m sorry there was no blog last weekend. Frustratingly, the thing I spent that time on now isn’t going to work out, so I’m determined to make sure there is a post this weekend, and the post that is due is the next round-up of my academic life, which has now reached 2016. It has been five months since I posted the last of these three-month slices, and the only real consolation there is that it took me less time to get through those three months of blog content than it did the previous one, but we will hopefully still see further gains made as marking ebbs and the summer shapes up. Can but hope, eh? But meanwhile, here’s how it looked at the beginning of 2016 for your humble blogger.


It’s not just tradition but also a reflection of the real state of life that the first item on the bill is always teaching. Actually, in the first half of 2016 I had a lower teaching load than I have had since or likely ever will at Leeds, given what they need me to cover; I was running one module, albeit a big one, and contributing bits to a couple of others. That said, the beginning of the semester was still a fairly steep learning curve, as the module I was running was an inherited first-year course called Empire and Aftermath: The Mediterranean World from the Second to the Eighth Centuries, and even my undergraduate study experience only previously went back to AD 284; I’d never done the second or third centuries before in any context, let alone one where I needed to show expertise. Thankfully I had the help of two postgraduates who’d taught the module before and that made everything easier, although I did also have to second-mark and observe those postgraduates so they were not solely a labour relief. It was all a fair bit of work, and it coincided with the early part of the excellent but intensive Palaeography: Reading Medieval Manuscripts that we put our MA students through, which has continuous assessment. Furthermore, Leeds has examinations on the first semester’s modules as soon as the students get back in January, so I was reading up for the new stuff and choosing manuscript images for palæography at the same time as marking these exam scripts, and by the time I was done with those the first palæography assignments were in, and they were only just back to the students by the time the first-years’ formative essays came in, alongside the second palæography assignments… and in general it seemed a long time before the marking stopped.

Wolfenbüttel MS Codex Guelfybertiani 13, fo. 6v

One that was set; can you read this? Come to Leeds and we’ll teach you! But if you want to know more independently, it is Wolfenbüttel MS Codex Guelfybertiani 13, folio 6 verso, and you can find out more via the link through the image

In between these I fitted a couple of workshops for an Institute for Medieval Studies module, Medieval Narratives on the Modern World, on European national origin myths and on the so-called Reconquista, but those were fun and much less work. And there were also personal tutorials to be fitted in, to which only half the students turn up but of course you must book the time anyway, and feedback meetings, and also joint care of a visiting Chinese Ph. D. student. I felt fairly busy. Still, looking back, I was not carrying very much and the next year would have been much harder if I hadn’t had this run-up.

Extra Labours

That must also be how I had time for the other things I was doing. In particular, having found out that there was this coin collection in the bottom of the Library, I had resolved to make it part of my teaching, and so one of the few changes I did make to Empire and Aftermath was to turn one of the seminars into a coin-handling session to try and get people excited about the reality of the period in their hands. I’m not sure how well that worked, though commendably both my postgrad assistants leapt at the chance to be able to say they’d taught with coins and did some crash-course Roman numismatics with me, which made me feel useful. More prosaically, in the state of the collection there wasn’t really a way to find out what there was to teach with except to inventory it, so I put aside my Friday afternoons for most of this period to inventory the medieval, Byzantine and late Roman coins and got through a fair few. Some day soon I will get round to sorting out the photographs I took of the cool ones…

Copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Constans II overstruck at Constantinople in 641-642 on a coin of Emperor Heraclius, DOC II Constans II 59c, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued

Here is one that perhaps only I could think is cool, a horribly-made copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Constans II overstruck at Constantinople in 641-642 on a coin of Emperor Heraclius, DOC II Constans II 59c, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued

There was also other stuff involving coins. Back at the Barber Institute the process of replacing me had unfortunately crossed with their normal exhibition schedule, so my humble effort, Inheriting Rome, was extended for a few months to give the new curator a chance. I got to see my thus-prolonged exhibition again because there were still two more sessions of the now-legendary All That Glitters project to do, about which I will tell you shortly, and of course back at Leeds this was also the time in which I started the wheels turning on the project that would become Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet. My head of department was actually concerned that I was going to spend all my time doing late antique numismatics and not the research on whose basis I’d been hired, which I didn’t see as a serious worry because, at this point, there was still time and I used it on stuff that was interesting and useful for others as well as for me.

Other people’s work

I was also at this point still managing to travel for seminars a bit, and I have a lot of notes from this period that I’m not really going to say much more about. The itinerary looked like this, though:

  • Katherine Cross, Dominic Dalglish and Robert Bracey, “Images, Relics and Altars: comparing material religion on the first millennium”, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 20th January 2016, to which I went mainly because Robert is an All That Glitters collaborator, but at this stage he was also busy with a project called Empires of Faith, which was doing the kind of cross-cultural comparison implied by their title here, with Katy Cross bringing early English Christian monuments like the Gosforth Cross to the table, Dominic Dalglish coming from the ancient Mediterranean world and Robert from Kushan India, but here talking as much about what made for valid comparison in this set-up as the actual objects. This was interesting but the results of the project can now be investigated on the web, so I’ll leave this one aside and move on to…
  • Hugh Kennedy, “ISIS and the Early Caliphate”, Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages Annual Public Lecture, University of Birmingham, 27th January 2016, to which I travelled down and which I thoroughly enjoyed, but which needs treatment together with…
  • Julia McClure, “A New Politics of the Middle Ages: a global Middle Ages for a global modernity”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 3rd February 2016, also substantially about the way people were reading the Middle Ages into the situation in the Middle East at that time, but approaching it from a very different direction. So I’ll do a post about those two together.
  • I also made it down to London for Alex Rodríguez Suárez, “The Komnenian Emperors: a Latinophone dynasty”, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 11th February 2016, about the extent of the changes brought about in Byzantine court ceremonial under, especially, Manuel I Komnenos that would be attributed to Latin influence, which Dr Rodríguez wanted, I think rightly, to read as appropriation of ways to assert dominance over the new Latin lords in the Middle East, not an aping of their flashy chivalric habits as they have often carelessly been read. That seemed convincing to me but I don’t have much more to say about it, so on to a clutch of things back at Leeds, as follows:
  • Pat Cullum, “‘Looking the Part’: presentation and representation of clerical masculinity in late medieval England”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 24th February 2016;
  • Esther Eidinow, “Seeing into the Future? Oracles and the Ancient Greeks”, Classics Seminar, University of Leeds, 25th February 2016, about ancient Greek stories in which oracles were tested before being consulted for real, pushing at the edges of our categories of rational and irrational, interesting and my first step in a plan to make friends with my counterparts in Classics and Ancient History;
  • Natalie Anderson, “Tournament Trappings: Textiles and Armour Working Together in the Late Medieval Joust”, Medieval Group Seminar, University of Leeds, 7th March 2016, the culminating presentation by one of our Ph.D. students then about to finish and very much a mature piece of work about the ways in which combatants in late medieval tournaments displayed and distinguished themselves, which was as much or more a matter of fabric as the armour that more often now remains to us.
  • Then, back to London again to see a big name, Philippe Buc, “Eschatology, War and Peace: of Christ’s Armies, Antichrist and the End of Times between ca. 1095 and ca. 1170″, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 10th March 2016, arguing for a change in the way that medieval people thought about the oncoming end of the world that occurred with Crusading, in which it becoming OK to kill for God was itself a sign of the end times, but one that could last for quite a long while, setting up the fight that would now go on until everyone was Christian and the End finally came. I remember this being fun and extremely erudite, but looking back over my notes I’m not sure what I have to add to that summary, so it’s back to Leeds for two more to close the season, the relevant items being:
  • Travelling the World: from Apuleius to the Icelandic Sagas, from the picaresque novel to travel literature, a more substantial seminar in Classics whose separate components were:
    • Regine May, “Travelling to the Land of Witches: Apuleius’s Golden Ass“, about Thessaly’s Classical reputation as a hotbed of magic and sorcery and how travel might thus lead you out of the known world in several dimensions, and
    • Ros Brown-Grant, “Encounters between the East and West in Fifteenth-Century Manuscript Cultures”, on pictures of Westerners meeting Easterners either in West of East as imagined by Western manuscript artists, usually for tales of betrayal where Greeks were concerned or conversion where Muslims were, sort of inevitably.
  • and finally, Ross Balzaretti, “Early Medieval Charters as Evidence for Land Management Practices”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 16th March 2016, to which I would have gone even had it been further afield since Ross has been a supporter of mine for a long time and I am very interested in his work, but precisely because it’s quite similar to my own, I’m not going to do a detailed write-up here because it would look a lot like, “Ross’s charters say things like mine do!” It was good, but you can already read the same sort of thing here.

My Own Research?

So that brings us to the end of the timespan, and I have only promised three extra posts out of it this time, though actually there are also one news and two tourism posts that should also be fitted in there. But what is as ever missing is my own research. What was I working on in this period, looking back? Well, for one thing I was finishing revisions on the conference paper that nearly wasn’t, “A Problem of Concavity”; the final version of that was fired off into what became a suspicious silence in the middle of February 2016. After that I seem to have turned to the reading to support the revision of my venerable paper on early medieval crop yields, of which I’d done the bulk while still at Birmingham, and I had a new draft of that done in March, although, it would seem, not one I thought submissible; that was still a way off, and I now don’t recall why. But beyond that it’s hard to see what I was doing, and the conclusion has to be, I think, that despite the apparently light load I was struggling. I would build up academic muscle from here, and reluctantly trim back a lot of the activity above to make other things possible, but at this stage I was still enjoying being an established academic as I’d imagined it and seen it done by others, as well as reading a lot for teaching, and perhaps not getting that balance entirely right, in retrospect. I think, also, I still hadn’t actually worked out how to schedule research in a job that finally actually included that as a duty, but had structured time only for other activities. Actually accepting that it was a legitimate use of my employers’ time to read a book, after years governed by the next deadline, was still proving weirdly hard for me… Of course, I still was governed by the next deadline, functionally, but I was only letting others set them, wherein a mistake with future complications. Anyway, this story will be continued! But for now there’s enough queued up to write about, and this has already been a long post, so I’ll wrap it here and thank you for reading.