Stepping Back a Thousand Years

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Tom Barton, Ph.D., is standing atop a ruined medieval castle overlooking a thousand-foot drop to the snaking river valley below. He scans the surrounding landscape, a patchwork of fields peppered with olive trees and crisscrossed with vines stretching to the horizon where it transitions into the azure waters of the Mediterranean.

“A thousand years ago, this landscape was one of the most prosperous and intellectually vibrant regions of Islamic Spain,” Barton explains, gesturing to the stunning vista during his summer 2009 visit to the area. “Then in the middle of the twelfth century it fell to Christian forces fighting under the leadership of the count of Barcelona, ruler of the Christian kingdom of Aragon. This castle of Siurana was the last Muslim holdout to succumb to the campaign after a siege of many months in 1153. The Muslim population subdued, the entire territory began to experience a transformation into a Christian-ruled society, known today as New Catalonia.”

Remarkably well preserved, the tiny hamlet of Siurana with its castle ruins and plain Romanesque chapel today contends with groups of shutterbug tourists rather than crusader armies. Located an hour to the south of the booming metropolis of Barcelona in northeastern Spain, it is just one of several stops Barton makes on his weekend tour of the region when the archives are closed.

During the week, Barton has been hard at work at the Archive of the Crown of Aragon in Barcelona, one of the largest and most underutilized medieval royal archives in Europe, as well as a number of municipal and church archives continuing research on his multi-year project studying how New Catalonia was transformed into a Christian-ruled society through conquest and colonization over several generations.

Based on his 2006 Yale University dissertation, which was funded by a number of grants including a Fulbright Fellowship, this line of research is the focus of Barton’s book manuscript entitled In the Shadow of Conquest: Settlement, Memory, and Authority in the Crown of Aragon, 1148-1300, that he is preparing to submit for publication.

This summer’s research was generously funded by a Faculty Research Grant from the University of San Diego and an International Opportunities Grant from USD’s International Center. In addition to time in the archives, this funding enabled Barton to complete a related article on Muslim farmers in this Christian-ruled countryside. It has been submitted to a top peer-reviewed journal.

Barton, an assistant professor in History and Co-director of USD's new program in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, will be presenting findings based on this research at the California World History Association Annual Meeting in Riverside this October and at a conference entitled “Bishops on Europe’s Peripheries in the Middle Ages” at  Pomona College in March, 2010.

“Very few of the documents I’ve consulted for this project are published, and most of them have never even been read by modern scholars,” Barton explains. “One of the most exhilarating things about studying medieval Spain is that it has received so little attention by scholars and involves issues such as the formation of western European society and the coexistence and interaction of religious groups – Muslim, Christians, and Jews – that are the source of so many problems and controversies today.”

The vast majority of the records Barton is consulting are Latin originals handwritten on durable animal-skin parchment. Many years of language study of Latin and modern European languages such as Spanish, Catalan, French, and German at Princeton and Yale helped prepare him for this type of research.

Barton’s trips allow him to continue his research and maintain contact with European colleagues and culture, activities he draws on to enrich his teaching at USD, including courses on Muslim, Christian, and Jewish contact in the western Mediterranean and on European expansionism into Asia, Africa, and the Americas during the medieval and Early Modern periods.

“Premodern historians are arguably the best qualified to demonstrate the truth of the adage that ‘those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it,’”  Barton concludes. “One of my joys in teaching the interaction of religious groups in Iberia and the Middle Ages in general is showing my students how they can become better informed citizens and leaders through the study of historical problems that may not seem particularly relevant at first glance but which in fact hold vital lessons for all of us.”

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