Eric Dursteler, associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, studies the early modern Mediterranean, identity, conversion, and the history of food. He is in Chicago this week to deliver the Center for Renaissance Studies’ Lecture in Early Modern History. We took the opportunity to have a discussion about his research.
Q: Your talk at the Newberry concerns language and identity. What makes the Mediterranean region different in this respect from other parts of early modern Europe?
A: Early modern Europe was generally a vibrant and diverse linguistic world, much more so than the post-national, global Europe that we see today. What sets the Mediterranean apart is simply the depth of diversity and its linguistic variety. The concentration of very different languages, ranging from varieties of Arabic, Greek, Slavonic, Italian, and Turkish, and the intensity of exchange and connection in the region is what sets the Mediterranean apart. The reality of being constantly immersed in and exposed to such intense linguistic variety led to individuals developing a variety of strategies to navigate this multilingual environment in ways that still obtain in many ways, though they are often masked by the monolingual, nationalist notions of language and communication we have inherited from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Q: The Mediterranean is still a polyglot and poly-cultural area. Can questions of early modern identity help us understand what’s going on in Mediterranean cultures today?
A: The difficulties that characterize the modern Mediterranean certainly have roots in the near and more distant past; however, I am very resistant to any narrative that attempts to posit any sort of timeless, ahistorical antagonism between religious and cultural groups in the region. Rather than looking to distant conflicts and misunderstandings, the source of most of the problems we see in the region today are of much more recent vintage, primarily associated with events and ideologies of the modern era, such as nationalism, colonialism, the cold war, etc. Religion, it strikes me, is more of a veneer that masks the real, more profound political, economic, social, and environmental issues. As a historian, I do feel that my work and that of other Mediterranean historians that resists metanarratives like the notion of a Mediterranean eternally rent by a clash of civilizations can hopefully impact current discourses and challenges in the region by depicting the long history of connection and engagement, as well as conflict, that characterized the post-classical Mediterranean.
Q: In addition to disparate languages, varying religions and religious practices—Christianity (Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern), Islam, and Judaism—created gulfs between people in the early modern Mediterranean. How does the question of religion fit into your research?
A: Religion is of course central to any discussion of the Mediterranean. Just as it is intensely diverse in linguistic terms, the Mediterranean is also very rich and varied in terms of religion. The Mediterranean is the crossroads of the three major monotheistic faiths—Judaism, Islam, and Christianity—as well as other more minor traditions, and this has profoundly marked and informed the region’s history. So to study the Mediterranean, certainly in the period I look at, it is impossible not to address questions of religion. My work tends toward the microhistorical and local, and so I am not as interested in broad historical questions on religion. Rather, what fascinates me is the variety of ways in which individuals and communities intersect and the ways in which religion does, or does not, inform these interactions. I strongly oppose thinking about the Mediterranean in terms of broad religious civilizations in perpetual conflict, rather I find that while religion certainly informs individual identities and actions, it is often not the determining factor. By moving from the macro to the micro, a much richer and more complexly nuanced world emerges. Distinctions between religious communities and practices were often much more malleable than we would anticipate, and that coexistence, punctuated to be sure with moments of disruption, was more common than exceptional. What makes the Mediterranean so endlessly engaging is the ways in which diverse and connected communities negotiated this rich mélange.
Q: I understand your research also involves exploring the history of food—food and diplomacy, food and politics, and so forth. Can you tell us a little about that?
A: A number of years ago my department chair asked faculty to consider developing more topical courses that moved beyond the traditional national or chronological surveys that so often dominate history course offerings. In a flight of fantasy, I decided that because I liked to eat food and had a very general knowledge of it, that I should teach a course on the history of food. The course was accepted, I began prepping it, and it was from this experience developing a course and then teaching it that my interest in researching food evolved. Which is the exact reverse of how things normally work; usually I research in an area and then develop a course to follow on the heels of my research.
Since I began teaching the course about a decade ago, I have been thinking and occasionally writing about the ways in which food informs early modern Mediterranean culture. Fernand Braudel, the great scholar of the Mediterranean, posited the notion that the sea was linked together by its shared trinity of staple foods, wheat, grapes, and olives. Building on this notion, I have been working on more specific aspects of the food culture of the Mediterranean—feasting and food gifts in diplomacy, food provisioning practices, food and notions of community and otherness—and trying to show the ways in which foodways were shared across religious and political boundaries and the ways in which they help us to sketch out a more connected Mediterranean world. Eventually I hope to gather a series of essays on this topic into a book, tentatively titled Around the Mediterranean Table: Foodways and Identity in the Early Modern Era.
Q: Sounds fascinating! Thank you, and I am looking forward to your lecture.
Lecture in Early Modern History
“A place that very well represents the Tower of Babel”: Linguistic Pluralism and the Ecology of Language in the Early Modern Mediterranean
Eric Dursteler, Brigham Young University
The lecture is free and open to the public; follow the link above to register to attend.
Posted by Karen Christianson, associate director, Center for Renaissance Studies.