Simon Doubleday March 29, 2016


The recent gathering of the Historians of Medieval Iberia, organized by the Center for Medieval Studies of Stockholm University (March 14-16, 2016), brought dozens of specialists together in the warmly congenial surroundings of the Swedish Historical Museum.

Simon Barton, the first of the four keynote speakers, initiated the conference with an incisive lecture on the imaginary of secular military leadership in medieval Iberia, unpacking its theorization in the Siete Partidas and presenting the Poema del Mio Cid as a nuanced “mirror for caudillos”. Later the same morning, one especially rich panel featuring Francisco Peña Fernández, David Navarro, and Guadalupe González Diéguez, examined issues of crypto-Jewish influence and ‘translation zones’ in the Alfonsine General Estoria. Art historical approaches were also well represented; a session featuring Allegra Iafrate, Francisco de Asís García García and Elena Paulino Montero addressed artistic exchange, challenging notions of cultural binaries and underscoring the fluidity of artistic transmission, not only between religious and ethnic groups but also between the competing interests of crown and nobility. In her paper, Jerrilynn Dodds also suggested ways in which a shared visual language, and common inheritances, survived the shift to Spanish ‘crusade’ in the twelfth century.

The speakers converged in their sense that the lines of friendship and enmity by no means coincided with religious boundaries. Closing the first day’s programme, Maribel Fierro addressed in her keynote lecture the Andalusi construction and theorization of the Berber (especially Sanhaja) enemy, dwelling on the way in which Berber violence—and particularly violence against women—was represented as a marker of barbarism. On the second day, Jonathan Wilson argued that in twelfth-century Portugal, there was no culture of crusade but rather a rejection of total war and a general reluctance to “override the common humanity” of neighbors from different faiths; the early thirteenth-century De Expugnatione Scalibis was in this sense a radical break from cultural tradition, bearing the hallmarks of a very different, northern French, doctrine of violence. In my own keynote, I similarly attempted to address the surprisingly complex and contradictory attitudes towards conflict with Muslim populations, in Alfonso X’s Cantigas de Santa María, examining the value of these texts as evidence for approaching the history of emotions.

In her lecture, the fourth and final keynote, Maria Joao Branco presented a subtle and good-humored analysis of the remarkably complex relationship between kings and popes in thirteenth-century Iberia; popes, she suggested, often represented themselves as the spiritual fathers of wayward royal sons, but tended to drop their indulgent references to their carísimus filius when truly furious. More broadly, at the congress, Portuguese studies—far from peripheral—were central to the discussion;

Throughout the conference, the high quality of postgraduate students’ work was striking: among others, Ted Holt, David Cantor-Echols, Jamie Ellis, Mohammad Ballan, and the conference’s final speaker Daniela Radpay (bravely broaching the realm of literary theory) all delivered carefully constructed and informative papers. Simultaneous sessions prevented me from hearing Kyle Lincoln’s paper, but his research on clerical participation in crusading—generously shared in advance—helped inform my paper. Highlights of a conference whose intellectual diversity cannot be fully summarized here also included Roger Wright’s paper on the curiously familiar Romance-language culture of the Berbers who occupied the Iberian Peninsula in the early 8th century; a Skype intervention from Syrian scholar Enass Khansa at 4.30am East Coast Time (inspired partly by a similar appearance by David Wacks); the discovery that the Siete Partidas is being translated into Russian, by Alexander Marey’s team in Moscow; and a lavish reception and tour of the extraordinarily beautiful Stockholm city hall. Sincere thanks to conference organizers Kim Bergqvist, Kurt Villads Jensen, and (not least for his energetic questions from the audience) Anthony Lappin. There is talk afoot of revivifying the Historians of Medieval Iberia group, re-establishing it as a sister organization of AARHMS, and perhaps even of a repeat conference in Stockholm: all of which are greatly to be desired.