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The Mediterranean World: From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Napoleon, Monique O’Connell and Eric R Dursteler.

April 17, 2016

The Mediterranean World: From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Napoleon, Monique O’Connell and Eric R Dursteler.  John Hopkins University Press, 2016

4 stars.

An excellent overview of how Christian, Muslim, and Jewish peoples interacted in the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea from 500 to 1798.

Most of us know about the peoples around the Mediterranean from a European perspective. And the narratives have usually featured nation states.  Like other recent scholars, Monique O’Connell and Eric R. Dursteler are moving beyond the limits of this approach. They center their narrative on the diverse ethnic, political and religious groups that intersected in the lands surrounding the body of water.  During the Medieval and Early Modern periods surveyed in their book, they recount how Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders competed for domination of the region, while none gained long-term domination. Battles took place between the groups, but these authors move beyond the violence to reveal complex patterns of accommodation and co-existence that were even more common than the clashes of the rulers.  Their book offers excellent proof of the inadequacy of the “clash of civilizations’ that is sometimes claimed.

The authors are respected scholars.  They are meticulous in the discussion of the scholarship of others and why they agree and disagree with their claims. Their account is clear and well-written. What was most remarkable to me was the way the authors have brought together such interesting narratives of how people of differing beliefs and values lived together in various degrees of harmony. For the first time I could follow the ebb and flow of events involving different cultures. At times I bogged down in the numerous unfamiliar names, but these are unavoidable in surveys like this one.

The book has a largely chronological structure with recurring sections addressing issues of population mobility, state development, commerce, and changing frontiers.  In it we see the sometimes tenuous connection between the ruler and the ruled. To say a leader from one religion conquered another region did not mean that people followed his lead.  Mercenaries from all the countries and religions fought on all sides. Some tolerance for different religions was common even when all were not treated equally.  Commerce overrode faith commitments. In addition, within major religions divisions existed.  Roman Christians opposed Byzantium Christians.  When Muslims dominated the shores of the Mediterranean, they were divided into separate empires.

O’Connell and Dursteler have produced an important book showing us how the inclusion of a wide variety of people can result in a more complex understanding of a given time and place.  The wonderful illustrations, dating from the periods discussed, and the clear maps enhance the book’s value.  I gladly recommend to others, especially those struggling to understand the core interactions of our history.


One Comment leave one →
  1. June 4, 2016 9:56 pm

    This is a fascinating topic which tends to be avoided by more traditional histories of Europe. It is such a relevant topic for us today. I’ll look out for this book when I am next at the library.

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