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Movement and Mobility in the Medieval Mediterranean (6th-15th centuries): Society for the Medieval Mediterranean 6th Biennial Conference in Memory of Simon Barton
Alun Williams reports on the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean conference, held in the Institut d’Estudis Catalans (IEC), Barcelona.
The 2019 Conference of the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean took place in the historic centre of Barcelona between 8 and 11 July in the beautiful and (mostly) neo-classical surroundings of the Casa de Convalescència, a seventeenth-century building close to the Rambla. Our friend and colleague Simon Barton had been an early enthusiast for this venue, and we were all excited that the conference would be held, for the first time, on the shores of the Mediterranean itself. Following Simon’s sad and untimely death in December 2017, the executive committee of the SMM resolved to dedicate the conference to his memory and legacy. Simon had served as society president from 2013 until his death and had been an innovative and inclusive choice, initiating society book and article prizes and student bursaries; there was, therefore, a great determination to make the event a fitting and warm celebration as well as one that reflected the debt to Simon and his work for the society.
Thirty-two panels presented papers over four days, each with the overall focus chosen by the Scientific and Organising Committee. Because the society has always welcomed contributions from History, Archaeology, Religious Studies, Art, Literature and other disciplines that comprise Medieval Studies, conference papers reflected the complexity and diversity that has characterised the medieval Mediterranean. Furthermore, many papers discussed areas where earlier ideas had received comparatively recent attention: the mobility of Muslim minorities in Iberia and Jessica Tearney-Pearce’s fascinating paper entitled “Turning the Sea into a Church: Maritime Devotion in the Medieval Mediterranean”. Despite this inevitable range in scope and discipline, the conference was coherent and stimulating. It attracted scholars from Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East, with numbers from southern and south-eastern Europe up sharply on previous conferences.
Two excellent keynote addresses were delivered by Petra Sijpesteijn (Leiden) and Amy Remensynder (Brown University). Petra has long served as a member of the editorial board on al-Masāq – the society’s house journal – and her paper was entitled “Global Networks: Mobility and Exchange in the Mediterranean (600-1000)”. This set the tone for the conference, concentrating as it did on the period following the founding and early centuries of Muslim dominance in the Mediterranean. It was chiefly concerned with the ways in which trade, the movement of people, and cultural exchange proved to be more enduring and determining influences on mobility and intellectual integration than political or religious divergence and conflict. Amy Remensynder, who knew Simon well and has an established link with Exeter, gave the second keynote speech on “The Restless Mediterranean, a Sea in Motion”. In places, it was a lyrical, almost poetic presentation, the restless sea itself and its relentless motion providing a kind of metaphor for human movement, travel and mobility in the Mediterranean Basin and its hinterland. The sea was, furthermore, part of that mobility, providing not just a backdrop but a powerful, pervasive and determining element within it.
Perhaps the most poignant moment in the conference came at the end when a special session in honour of Simon Barton, chaired by his former student Antonella Liuzzo Scorpo (Lincoln), was convened specifically to remind delegates of Simon’s work – as well as to highlight further areas of research. The session, “New Directions in Medieval Iberian Studies: Simon Barton’s Scholastic Legacy” comprised papers from a former colleague, Therese Martin (IH-CCHS, CSIC-Madrid) and two of Simon’s PhD students, Teresa Witcombe and Teresa Tinsley. Therese Martin spoke on “Once and Future Queen: Urraca Redux (1109/2019)”; Teresa Witcombe’s subject was “’Reconquista’ and Crusade in Thirteenth-Century Burgos”; and Teresa Tinsley’s paper was entitled “Reframing the ‘Reconquista’: Hernando de Baeza’s Slant on the Conquest of Granada.” As well as presenting papers of exceptional insight and originality, each speaker acknowledged, sometimes with considerable emotion, her debt to Simon’s careful, diligent and inspirational guidance. The session prompted a wide range of questions from the audience and was, certainly from the perspective of those of us who knew Simon, the highlight of the conference and a fitting denouement.
I have now retired as society secretary after twelve years in post and was awarded with an honorary fellowship at the conference. This was a wholly unexpected honour for which I record my deep gratitude. We now look forward to the society’s 2021 conference, also to be held in the Mediterranean, at Rethymno on the island of Crete – and at which I hope to play a full part.
As many of you will know by now, our former colleague Simon Barton died suddenly just before Christmas. Simon had been at Exeter for many years, first in Modern Languages and then in History, before leaving in December 2016 to take up a chair at the University of Central Florida. Simon will probably need no introduction to many of you: if you didn’t know him in person, you have probably come across some of his work on medieval Spain. He was – among many other things – always a great supporter of the Centre for Medieval Studies, and was also one of the founders of our MA Medieval Studies. For more on his work at Exeter see the lovely tribute that Alun Williams wrote for the blog just over a year ago, when Simon left us for Florida.
Since news of Simon’s death began to circulate, there have been many tributes posted online, especially on Twitter, from his friends, colleagues and students, in the UK and overseas. A colleague at UCF has also set up an online tribute wall here. Instead of repeating these comments this blog post seeks to record the memories we have in Exeter of Simon as a friend, colleague, teacher and PhD supervisor. When I put out a call to the Exeter medievalists for their thoughts, the response was – predictably – huge. I have tried to include as many contributions as possible but in order to keep the size of this blog post manageable I have edited some of them down.
‘I sought out Simon as a PhD supervisor because of his expertise in Spanish medieval history but I had no idea I would be so lucky to find someone so kind, enthusiastic and encouraging who has supported me all the way – and I had a long way to come! He had a wonderfully light touch way of delivering what you realised later was searing criticism, e.g. “you’ll look back on this and want to change it – a lot”: an incredible skill in mentoring that not only made you want to do better, but affirmed to you that you could do it. I am already missing him terribly as I complete my thesis, he always said how much he was looking forward to “the next instalment” and it is sad that he won’t see the finished article, though of course I will dedicate it to him. He finished his last e-mail to me, just a couple of days before he died, with the words “YOU WILL PREVAIL” and I have taken these to heart as I continue without him.’ Teresa Tinsley
‘Many of those who have written about Simon have drawn attention to his humanity, personal kindness, his civilising influence, courtesy and his scholastic achievements and generosity. These were qualities he had in abundance but to these I would add integrity and gentle persuasiveness. It was he who became my supervisor and mentor back in 2006/7 and who was to be a much valued colleague, friend and inspiration. As well as having similar academic interests (many of which I owe to him), we both served on the board of The Society of the Medieval Mediterranean. Simon became its president in 2013. He once told me that he did not think he made his most important contribution when at the helm but preferred to work away from the limelight. He considerably underestimated himself. As president of the society he was dynamic, innovative and inclusive: he was a popular and auspicious choice who succeeded in widening the society’s appeal and encouraging young and new academics by instituting a prize acknowledging the work of the society’s founder, Dionisius Agius, and awarded biennially to the best first work by an aspiring academic in the field of medieval Mediterranean studies.’ Alun Williams
‘For me, when I started my MA in 2013 Simon was most helpful and generous with his time. Having been at university in the 1970s, with no background in Humanities and having spent my professional life in commerce, I was a raw recruit and needed some guidance. I well remember my first effort at an Humanities essay which he marked; it had ugly paragraphing and dire referencing. Simon patiently helped me through it and I was most grateful thereafter.’ Conrad Donaldson
‘I am far away here in Gaza, Palestine but I felt sad and depressed because of the big loss. I had the privilege to meet Prof Simon in Exeter between 2006 till 2009 where I gave him and a group of students some classes in Arabic and the Holy Quran. He was an example of kindness, tolerance and real friendship. I could never forget his smiley face. Please convey my heartfelt greetings to his beloved ones whom I used to see walking with him in Exeter High Street. Please tell them that they have lovers and friends in Palestine.’ Mahmoud nayef Baroud
‘Simon has been my supervisor for five years now and during that time he has been so kind, supportive, and encouraging to me. He was always so generous with his time and resources and so loyal and dedicated to his students. Even when he moved to Florida last year there was absolutely no doubt in his mind that he was going to see all his current students in Exeter through to the end of their PhDs. He was also so understanding and empathetic as a supervisor. No question was ever too silly and no worry was ever unimportant to him. He had such unwavering faith in other people that he was always the one to believe in me and my work, even when I didn’t believe in myself. Despite being a hugely successful academic, he always had time to support those further down the career ladder. I remember one time when he asked me for some ideas and references for a lecture he was giving to undergraduates on the same area as my thesis. The idea that a leading professor would ask for help from a lowly PhD student shows just how much respect he afforded his fellow academics whatever stage of their career they were at. So whilst his academic achievements and publications speak for themselves, it is his kindness and compassion as a person that I will always remember him for.’ Rowena Cockett
‘Simon was an excellent scholar and had a lovely personality – sociable, warm, courteous – a verray parfit gentil knyght as Chaucer would say.’ Nicholas Orme
‘He seemed especially adept at engaging with the research and activities of others, regardless of whether it was related to his own work, which was a great thing for those of us just starting out!’ Zoe Cunningham
‘I’ll always cherish his advice and patience.’ Mike Whelan
‘Simon was one of the most impressive scholars that I have met. He was also warm, self-effacing and wonderfully good humoured. He seemed always to carry with him a feeling compounded of calm, authority and gentleness.’ Elliot Kendall
‘What a mean, muddy thunder to kill the noblest tree.’ Istvàn Kristo-Nagy
‘We bonded over our shared appreciation of the significance of Ladybird history books to our formation as historians (in particular that for Richard the Lionheart). Indeed, at his leaving do, he told me that they were some of the books he couldn’t bear to part with when he was preparing to move to Florida. Shortly after he joined History, I had a tap on my office door one dark autumnal evening, and Simon appeared, looking shaken and saying “I’ve just discovered I’ve got a three-year Leverhulme fellowship!” His modesty, and awe were typical. The Fellowship led to the research which became Conquerors, Brides and Concubines: Interfaith Relations and Social Power in Medieval Iberia (2015).’ Sarah Hamilton
‘Simon was my supervisor, and I feel extremely lucky to have worked with him for the last three years. He was a giant among medieval Hispanicists, and his scholarship has had a huge impact on our field. He was also an incredibly kind, humble, generous, and wise supervisor who cared deeply about his students and who inspired many of us to follow him into the archives of medieval Spain. He will be sorely missed.’ Teresa Witcombe
And finally, Oliver Creighton offers a lighter anecdote: ‘I remember spending a couple of fantastic hours walking the Floridian beaches near Sarasota with Simon while on a trip to the University of South Florida, and us both forgetting to put on any suncream and getting sunburned while talking through the future of medieval studies at Exeter.’
Not everyone was able to comment here, but I think these tributes speak for many of us in the Centre, even those who haven’t commented separately. Simon will be sorely missed!
Catherine Rider, Director, Centre for Medieval Studies
I have a few words about Simon to mark his departure from Exeter. We are more than sorry to be losing you, Simon. You are going not just to the USA but to Florida – the state of hanging chads and tight election results – and our loss is certainly Florida’s gain. Even as we speak, the good burghers of Orlando will no doubt be ‘trumpeting’ your arrival!
I am grateful to be given the opportunity to say a few words; I have known Simon for over ten years and we have been manacled together in Room 118 for at least five years. But we have other areas of common pleasure: an abiding affection for Aberystwyth, a shared sense of humour and an admiration of Spanish Romanesque architecture. But my main reasons for being honoured to have the chance to record my thanks is because we all owe Simon so very much. When I first came to Exeter, I met a former head of history, Christopher Holdsworth, who said of Simon: ‘he’s a great man’.
And this greatness is measured in a number of ways: first, he is an inspirational teacher who always has a string of potential PhD candidates as well as many recent successes to his name. As we shall see, people remember fondly their time of research under Simon’s guidance. Secondly, he is an intellectually generous scholar, keen to encourage insight amongst his students and to give early and encouraging credit when they do so. Thirdly, he is a warm and reassuring friend whose humanity and companionable presence has cheered us all.
I have collected some recollections and there are common themes in all of them. For my own part, I vividly recall an occasion when I suggested that, as an area of research, I might tackle the evolution of the medieval Italian city. Simon looked at me as we might look at friend who has just admitted to having voting Brexit. Nothing was said. The medieval Italian city was never referred to again and I snuggled contentedly into twelfth-century Spain.
Ryan Schwarzrock, from LA, who obtained his PhD in 2014, writes: ‘I would like to pass on my deep gratitude for Simon’s support and assistance through the MA and PhD. Although it took me some time to find traction, Simon continued to have confidence in my project and encouraged me to the end. I am also grateful for his continued support as I have been searching for a full-time position. I also look back fondly on the outings that our cohort made to the pub for drinks and conversation. I was also touched that Simon made a special trip to Bishopsteignton for a farewell lunch before Emily and I sailed back to America.’
Antonella Luizzo-Scorpo, now working at Lincoln, was Simon’s first PhD student: ‘Simon has always been more than just a supervisor for me: he was and still is a guide and a friend, somebody I could share my academic and personal doubts with, always ready to listen and provide advice… with a reassuring smile. The day of my PhD graduation, Simon gave me an A4 sheet of paper with an email printed on it: it was the first message I ever sent him (in very peculiar English, to say the least) when I had just completed my BA in Sicily and I was trying to sort out my life, as well as my academic career. That made me realise that one of the reasons why I feel so much admiration and respect for Simon is because he trusted me from the very beginning! He is an excellent scholar (as we all know) as much as he is an exceptionally kind, wise and caring human being. I am proud of being the first PhD student that Simon supervised and I will always be grateful for what he taught me (including how I can say something in 3 pages rather than 33… so, he basically saved me from Italian writing prolixity!). I wish him all the best for the future and I want to let him know that I always keep his model in mind when I deal with my own students these days…’
And Daniel Roach, another PhD success, draws attention to other aspects of Simon’s qualities: ‘Fun fact 1 – Simon was once quoted as saying, were there a radio programme called Desert Island Drinks, his favourite drink would be Abbot Ale. Fun fact 2 – Simon has an encyclopaedic knowledge of football trivia, particularly relating to the FA Cup in the 1970s and 80s (??) and has been known, from time to time, to publicly quiz undergraduate students who have arrived late to lectures with questions regarding this specialist subject in order to encourage them to not do so again! Simon has consistently been kind and generous with his time – from helping to develop my PhD proposal and the writing of the PhD itself through to publications thereafter. Supervision meetings with him and Julia Crick were regular and greatly stimulated the project as a whole and developed me as a person and a scholar. I have learnt a great deal from Simon’s tactful and diplomatic approach to differing scholarly approaches and am deeply grateful for the way this has shaped me.’
It’s those little acts of kindness, courtesy and generosity that make the most profound impact. And just as Simon no doubt looks back fondly to his own mentor, the late Richard Fletcher, so there will be many generations of Exeter alumni who will remember fondly their time here and whose lives were touched by his enthusiasm and scholarly attention. So we would like to wish you well Simon as a great and attentive teacher, as a magnanimous scholar and perhaps most memorably, as a fine and much-valued friend.
Dr Alun Williams, Associate Lecturer in History