Publication Spotlight: ‘Diverging Paths?: Power and Institutions in Medieval Islam and Christendom’

“Why did certain sorts of institutionalisation and institutional continuity characterise government and society in Christendom by the later Middle Ages, but not the Islamic world, whereas the reverse end-point might have been predicted from the early medieval situation?”
This question lies at the core of Prof. John Hudson’s new publication, co-edited with Ana Rodriguez, Diverging Paths?: Power and Institutions in Medieval Islam and Christendom. In the eighth century, government in the Islamic world featured bureaucracy in a way unimaginable in Christendom, and especially western Christendom, in the same period. By the end of the middle ages, however, the latter region was dominated by a number of highly sophisticated institutions. Diverging Paths takes a number of these institutions in the Byzantine, western and Islamic worlds, and explores their formation, in the hope of answering or revising this question.

This book is the product of a collaborative project on comparative institutionalisation across western Christendom, eastern Christendom and the Islamic world in the period c.750–1350. The collaborations began in the late 1990s, between mediaevalists at St Andrews and at the CSIC in Madrid.  Work began by exploring the legitimisation of political authority. Gradually, over time, the group expanded and started to look at broader issues of power and institutions.  In 2008, the group received a grant from the Spanish government which enabled them to focus on the processes of institutionalisation. The project was based primarily on a series of workshops. These led to a conference, which in turn resulted in Diverging Paths.

The use of a tripartite comparison between Byzantium, western Christendom and the Islamic world is central to this study. It was driven, and indeed made possible, by the strengths of the history department at St Andrews in these three areas. John believes this approach has a number of benefits. Examination of similar themes in a number of societies helps scholars to reconsider their assumptions. Furthermore, the study of a process, such as ‘institutionalisation’, is made more meaningful when it is conducted in a number of contexts and cultures.

It was this comparative approach, however, which led to most of the intellectual challenges the project faced. How broad should the comparisons be? The ‘Islamic World’ or ‘Western Christendom’ are, of course, very large categories and a lot of variety can be noticed within them: as in the present day, Iceland and Sicily were very different places in this period, but both come under the umbrella of ‘Western Christendom’. However, these comparisons needed to be broad enough to allow the group to pose the questions they did, and facilitate meaningful investigation.

More specifically for this study, both institutions and institutional processes need to be defined.  Two potential challenges presented themselves here: to get something which was not too vague, whilst at the same time not creating a definition that was too culturally specific. In response to this, the group created a working list of ten criteria, including ‘institutional memory’, ‘identification with institutions’, ‘normative nature’ and ‘self-replication’. Thus, the networks of Benedictine monasticism which came to dominate western Christendom in this period were definable as institutions. The smaller religious communities of sixth-century Francia, on the other hand, which often died out within a few decades of foundation, were less institutionalised.

PIMIC opening workshop, St Andrews

PIMIC opening workshop, St Andrews, 2013

The publication of Diverging Paths is not the end of the process, but in many ways it is the beginning. John is currently involved in a number of projects that have grown out of this one, and which also make use cross-cultural comparisons in their examination of institutionalisation. The largest of these is the EU funded project ‘Powers and Institutions in Medieval Islam and Christendom’, or PIMIC. Whilst PIMIC does still have an academic thrust, it is primarily a training network which was created to fund PhDs and postdocs. Currently two of these PhD students are working at St Andrews, Cory Hitt and Sarah Greer, and you can read more about some of PIMIC’s activities here and here.
In addition to this, John is currently planning another research project which will consider the development of law in Europe between 1050 and 1250. This project will argue that whilst the divergence between the continental civil law and English common law traditions did originate in that period, there were more similarities between English and Continental law than the traditional narrative of difference would lead us to believe. John will also continue to make use of the broader tripartite comparison between Western Christendom, Eastern Christendom and the Islamic worlds in this project: there are plans for a workshop which will bring together legal scholars working on each of these regions.

Diverging Paths does not answer to the question it poses in its introduction; indeed, unusually, there is no concluding chapter. John is keen to point out that this is deliberate. This study is a starting point: it ought to provoke further debate, rather than presenting a solution, or a final word on this topic.

About standrewshistory
With over forty full time members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from S cotland to Byzantium and the Americas to the Middle East and South Asia.Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching and tutorials allowing for in depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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