Openness to the Other and to Mediterranean History

José Enrique Ruiz-Domènec

Head of the Department of Middle-Ages History, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

Until now, the processes of dialogue carried out in the Mediterranean have begun from a state of opening to the Other. For this to be possible in the 21st century, in the middle of the numerous conflicts suffered by the region, we must look back and understand our historical past better. Only in this way can we understand the uselessness of war, which has not ceased to occur on the shores of the Mediterranean since Antiquity. At the end of this era, around the 7th century, Mare Nostrum started to become the arena of a long doctrinal debate between religions, which was at the same time economic and social. Thus was born the modern Mediterranean, as a territory of a semiotic battle that opened a new historical process around the 10th century, marked by the incorporation of new civilisations today fully integrated into the region.

The views on the encounter between cultures in the Mediterranean which I would like to present below are of a precise significance from a historical perspective. However it is not easy to fix the starting point of this problem, above all because most interpretations focus on the events that occurred in the last two centuries, it being believed that the situation in the Mediterranean region today is the result of international relations created after the Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt with a large group of erudite men, the foremost amongst whom was Jean-Baptiste Fourier, whose colleague Jacques-Joseph Champollion-Figeac, was soon eclipsed by his more fortunate brother Jean-François Champollion and the intelligent Vivant Denon, author of the famous Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Égypte. In the context of this conviction, to which none of us is entirely immune, the considerations I propose here may be seen as a warning: by joining the current debate on multiculturalism, as proposed by Charles Taylor, I would like, in my capacity as a medievalist, to look in depth at some of the opinions of sociologists, political experts and economists regarding the future of the Mediterranean. As a medievalist, I consider the processes of history in the long term, to the extent that my field of research often has a bearing on phenomena that occurred over a number of centuries. When Fernand Braudel outlined the first variant of this idea, the period he chose (the 16th century during the reign of Philip II of Spain) was a time characterised by the clash between various cultures in the Mediterranean region. The conclusion of this dark period of naval battles and bloody ransackings (the Battle of Lepanto was just one of many) invites us to modify our views and direct ourselves towards what some intellectuals proposed, with a strenuous effort of the moral imagination, in that very century. With reference to Montaigne, Shakespeare and Cervantes, there was the search for what I would like to term here as ‘the wisdom of uncertainty’.

A dialogue begins at the point in which the other is granted both a voice and the acknowledgment that he is at least partly right. All the authentic processes of Mediterranean acculturation begin by listening with an open mind to others, which explains why historians such as Herodotus, when considering the world of the Scythians, takes the same line as Averroes and Maimonides in their search for a connection with Christian cultures.

But what exactly does this attitude of openness consist of? Does it have anything to do with Homer’s tale of Ulysses’ return voyage to Ithaca? There is an admirable story that has survived from the depths of time concerning Pyrrhus, the king of Magna Graecia. I am not referring here to his fame for his military campaigns that gave rise to the term ‘Pyrrhic victory’, in which the victor becomes one of the vanquished, but instead to the legend according to which he turned his life into circular route, a legend that Hans Blumenberg used to interpret man’s indecisiveness in the face of nature. I would like to imagine that the future possibilities of all the cultures in the Mediterranean world nowadays coincide in revolving around a truth hidden in numerous imaginary formulations, and that, just as the Greek myths arrived at a common element following the severe collapse that followed the Bronze Age (fixed forever in our memories with the account of the Trojan War), so the modern reflections of historians may find a glimmer of hope in the midst of the disturbance of recent world events, many of which have originated on the shores of the Mediterranean (one only has to think of Kosovo, Macedonia or Palestine to see the truth in this). I like to think that the function of historical thinking in the 21st century connects much more with the spirit of the calm lightness of mythical thinking than with the light weight of dogma.

The more one understands the distant past, the less anxious one is to impose one’s ideas through force of arms

Why do I believe that a renewal in historical discourse would help to improve cultural relations between Mediterranean countries? Because the workings of the past clearly reveal the uselessness of war. Because the more one understands the distant past, the less anxious one is to impose one’s ideas through force of arms. This fundamental situation of Mediterranean cultures became clear at the end of classical Antiquity, shortly after they had emerged from Justinian’s desperate last attempt at restoring the Empire. The result was contrary to what the elegant (and proud) Roman emperor had sought, for rather than re-establishing imperial power, he accelerated the liberation of numerous farming communities and created the conditions for the later acceptance of Islam by Berber tribes.

The writers of the 7th century perceived and grasped this new situation and used it as the basis for promoting a new viewing of the value of tradition and renewal, an etymological gaze, the most famed of its exponents being St. Isidore of Seville. Isidore sought a harmonious solution to a world in the throes of sweeping change, but most of his approach (unquestionably inherited from Martianus Capella) was forgotten when Christianity had to accept the presence of Islam in North Africa, Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula. At that point, the Mediterranean became the arena of a long doctrinal debate, which at the same time was economic and social. As there had never been a religious controversy between dissimilar monotheistic religions, the different communities adopted particular forms in the face of the challenge of having to enter into a dialogue with a religion based on the Koran. But it was precisely when they lost the wisdom of uncertainty and the almost unanimous consent that the world wished to forget the message of classical myths that Mediterranean cultures arrived at four models for reaching the one true godhead: Latin Christianity, which was growing increasingly interested in reforming its liturgy in order to enable the integration of the Franks and the Germanic Lombards into its corpus of its doctrine; Greek Christianity, which was caught up in Hellenistic tradition and was preoccupied with the place that icons ought to occupy; the Judaism of the western Diaspora, whose messages are to be perceived in the documentation held in genizahs from Cairo to Cordoba; and Islam, whose rapid acceptance proved no obstacle to the formulation of a wealth of doctrine from Syria to Spain. The Mediterranean thus became the combat zone in a semiotic battle, the purpose of which was the possession of a sole truth, which none of the four religious models were prepared to concede to their opponents. They all had the same right to be heard by rural communities, and it was the easy adaptation of the old myths to each religion that created the differences between them.

The perception of the vital world of the Mediterranean in the late 11th century was unlike that of the past. There was a split in the historical process, which we today fix at around 1060

’Abd-Allah ibn Buluggin ibn Badis, the last king of the Zirid dynasty in Granada, records in the opening of his autobiography his torment over the situation created in the Mediterranean by the inrush of the Almoravids, a powerful military force organised around ribats (camps) that considered jihad a holy war, returning to the earlier view held in the days of the Prophet. The king consulted the stars and the poets of his court, and all the doctors and learned men that he could find, and still he arrived at no explanation for the need to set up a state apparatus of a tributary and segmented nature founded on the cultural edifice of Islam. After a description of the years of his reign, ’Abd-Allah remained uncertain of the motive for this irruption. For his readers of today the reason is still unclear. Some years earlier, a similar situation occurred in Sicily, when the Normans under Robert Guiscard occupied the island and created a state based on the function of the warrior. These two cultural models, which swept through the Mediterranean region over the course of the 11th century, altered the balance that had governed this part of the world following the end of Antiquity. One of these models came from the north and embraced a Germanic and Scandinavian mythology in which military might was considered an asset; the other came from the harsh lands of the barely Romanised southern Sahara. The world inspired by the utopia of Martianus Capella was extinguished, and the need arose to invent ways to integrate these processes that coincided with the displacement of Jewish communities, who moved from the south of the Mediterranean northwards, to the Rhone valley, Genoa and Venice.

’Abd-Allah’s worry, however typical it may have been, was thus different to that of Polybius and Augustine. The perception of the vital world of the Mediterranean in the late 11th century was unlike that of the past. There was a split in the historical process, which we today fix at around 1060, in other words, some 30 years before the armed expeditions known to us as the First Crusade and the occupation of Valencia by Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (between 1096 and 1099).

One of the failures of 20th-century historiography is that it has fully understood neither this phenomenon nor the autonomy of the incorporation of new civilisations into the Mediterranean world, such as the Normans in Sicily or the Almoravids in Spain. The policy of the popes was inspired by these events and, by its very own essence, contributed towards them. Thus, the Gregorian Reform forged a principle of distinction for times of profound change.

It has become the custom in recent times to situate the origin of capitalism in the Mediterranean world and there has even been harsh criticism of the received view that links this economic system with Calvinist ethics and the Dutch culture of the 16th century. I do not wish to pursue this debate here, but it is sufficient to note that as far as we know, capitalism became clearly defined in the 11th century, and proved to be the deus ex machina that divided Mediterranean communities: some societies were disinclined to adopt this economic form, either in part or in full, whereas others were prepared to accept it as the very foundation of their raison d’être.

In recent times there has been harsh criticism of the received view that links this economic system with Calvinist ethics and the Dutch culture of the 16th century

Of all the experiments of this period, the Genoan venture would seem to be the boldest and most epic in its manners and customs, as the chronicler Caffaro (1099-1163) reveals. The upheaval caused by this phenomenon brought about a change in the conduct in the cultural moulds of the past: Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) became the Mediterranean, a world of open horizons, as Roberto Sabatino López liked to say. It is important to bear in mind, as we reflect today in search of a solution to the current conflicts, that as the history of our distant past warns us, such clashes lead neither to a positive or lasting outcome. The true change is dialogue and agreement. Let us learn to build them. This is the principal challenge of the new millennium.