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.