Where Three Worlds Met

Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean

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Sarah Davis-Secord
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , June
     2017.
     320 pages.
     $59.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781501704642.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Sarah Davis-Secord’s Where Three Worlds Met: Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean asks its readers to consider new frameworks for inquiring about Sicily’s past. The history of Sicily and the medieval Mediterranean has been dictated by the arguments of 20th century historians, especially Fernand Braudel, who claimed that geography largely determined key aspects of Sicilian history. For Braudel, the long-term history of Mediterranean was marked by continuity and unity, with environmental factors largely shaping events on the island. Davis-Secord, on the other hand, finds this argument unsatisfactory, and poses a new question for the next generation of scholars: “Should we consider the island as the center of a large-scale Mediterranean system or as an area on the edge of one or the other of these three major religious-political-cultural regions?” (4). For Davis-Secord, the question of how empires adapted their conceptual images of Sicily over time as a periphery and/or center is where historians ought to focus, taking advantage of an opportunity to potentially destabilize earlier narratives of assumed continuity. 

Covering Sicily from Byzantine rule to Islamic control through the Norman period (535-1250), Davis-Secord brings together a variety of Latin, Greek, and Arabic sources to account for the networks of communication in Sicily and the events that occurred during Byzantine, Muslim, and Norman rule. A key question for the monograph is how past actors located Sicily: was it an edge or a center of connections? Was it a dividing point or a bridge between polities? Davis-Secord argues convincingly that Sicily was a strategically important borderland for the empires that controlled it. Sicily was important not because it was at the geographic center of the Mediterranean, but rather because it was always at the edge of empires. A borderland can hold the opposing tensions of center/periphery together. It can be “both a place of separation and space for interaction” (7). Thus Davis-Secord studies Sicily as a borderland through analyses of the island, its people, its products, and most importantly its networks. Each of the five chapters in the book examines the culture, products, people, and ideas that shifted from Byzantine to Muslim to Norman rule. As political rule changed, so did the networks of travel and communication. It was these political, economic, and informational shifts—largely driven by human networks—that were the important agents of change, according to Davis-Secord: Sicilian agency resides more in the realms of economics, politics, religion, and culture than merely geographic realities.

The first chapter argues that Byzantine Sicily was a borderland of three civilizations. Under Byzantine rule, Sicily was an ally and watchdog for Constantinople—a place to exile rebels, secure Byzantine interests on the Italian peninsula and with the papacy, and control the western border of the empire against foreign encroachment. Sicily was also a place of religious connectivity for education, spiritual needs, pilgrimage, and refugees. Its value as a place of economic exchange because of its grain supply for Constantinople was also valued. The second chapter argues that Islamic rule transformed rather than replaced existing models of governance. From Muslim raids beginning in 720 until the final conquest of Syracuse in 878, Sicily was a permeable borderland. The shift in Muslim interests from raiding for goods and human labor to conquest was driven by the value of agricultural products and population resettlement. Thus the main communication networks during the Aghlabid conquest stage were based upon movement, population change, and acculturation. The third chapter on Sicily under Muslim rule argues for a slow transition to Muslim power. Using cartographic evidence from medieval Arabic chronicles, Davis-Secord shows that Sicily was conceptually on the edge of Islamic political interests. Ibn Hawqal’s eyewitness description of Sicily claims that its people, language, and land lacked a civilized culture—a critique that Davis-Secord identifies as a “hybrid cultural zone.” Davis-Secord also accounts for the economic connections between Sicily and Egypt and North Africa, via the transportation of goods. The fourth chapter covers the shift to Norman rule, where Davis-Secord disagrees with earlier scholars that the Normans instituted a stark change from existing Islamic network patterns. Rather, she argues, the Normans culturally imitated, appreciated, and appropriated Islamic models of governance and trade. The fifth chapter examines Sicily in the wider Mediterranean, the decline of the Muslim Sicilian community, and the ways in which the Normans and later the Hohenstaufens adapted Islamic marks of prestige to depict their rule as part of a Mediterranean elite. Davis-Secord shows how the Normans exploited historical connections with earlier empires to gain prestige while also maximizing new networks they established to allow the Kingdom of Sicily to flourish. The conclusion reminds us that Sicily’s political, cultural, and militaristic role was usually secondary to empires’ wider goals in the Mediterranean. But as a borderland, Sicily was still valuable to the empires as a network hub for communications, contacts, exchanges, and conflict. For Davis-Secord, “Sicily thus moved, conceptually, to the middle of the Mediterranean only under Norman rule … [it] was a place that could be, in both the Byzantine and Islamic periods, simultaneously peripheral and central: sometimes a geographical position on the edge could foster a conceptual role for the island that placed it right at the heart of larger political, diplomatic, or economic needs” (248).

Despite its provocative thesis, Where Three Worlds Met is sometimes challenged by its scope and the source material that its author has at her disposal.  At times, it seems as if a lack of sources has made it more difficult for Davis-Secord to reach definite conclusions about Sicily’s shifting networks. Also, much of the material the book discusses is framed for an audience that already has a detailed knowledge of Sicilian history. This is not an introductory narrative to the major political and militaristic events of the period or its major figures, and readers would do well to enter this discussion with prior familiarity on the region and time period. There is also some repetition of stories, such as those about St. Elias the Younger of Enna. Overall, however, Davis-Secord’s work makes a significant contribution to the way we ought to frame our questions about the medieval Mediterranean and Sicily, in particular.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Bertaina is Associate Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Date of Review: 
July 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sarah Davis-Secord is associate professor of history at the University of New Mexico.

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