Barton Receives Bishko Prize for Mediterranean Research

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Association for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies has awarded History professor Thomas W. Barton the Bishko Prize for his article “Muslims in Christian Countrysides: Reassessing Exaricus Tenures in the Crown of Aragon,” which was published by the refereed journal Medieval Encounters in September 2011. The award is named after Charles Julian Bishko, an eminent scholar of medieval Spain who taught for many years at the University of Virginia, and recognizes the best article written by a North-American scholar on a medieval Iberian topic.

It was officially presented at the Association’s annual meeting held at Tufts University on March 22-25. The prize committee, chaired by Dr. Jeffrey Bowman of Kenyon College, noted that it “was particularly impressed by the rigor and nuance [Barton] brought to [this] examination of the social, political, and economic world of twelfth- and thirteenth-century Aragon.” The award is an honor to receive especially because, in the past, it has tended to be awarded to established scholars at research universities.

Barton’s current line of research deals with a hot topic within the field of Medieval Studies: the consolidation of territory conquered from Muslim rule in Iberia by Christians during the Middle Ages. This is a process (understood at the time to be a holy war) traditionally referred to as the Reconquista. Whereas early on in these battles the Christians had enslaved, killed, or expelled the Muslims in the lands they conquered, in the eleventh century they got the smart idea of allowing willing Muslims to remain after the conquest and work their sophisticated irrigation systems on the Christians’ behalf.

“The papacy wasn't thrilled about this,” Barton notes, “but it was tolerated as a necessary evil and had the upside of potentially exposing resident Muslims to missionizing. The Christians commonly had trouble settling the lands and it made sense to maintain the local economies intact using Muslim settlers as Christian migrants gradually moved into the area.”

The article deals with the question of how Christian landlords who took control of these lands accommodated these Muslim farmers. Did they allow them to continue working the lands just as they had done before, appropriating not just the techniques of cultivation but also the traditional agrarian contracts and legal relationships that were in place at the time of conquest, or did they impose Christian agricultural practices and legal systems on them, since this was, after all, now a Christian society? Earlier scholars have tended to two extremes. Either there was complete continuity or complete rupture with Muslim practices.

“What I did was look at this problem again and show how Christian landlords were exceedingly diverse in their handling of Muslim tenants,” Barton explains. “Some landlords got rid of local systems quickly and definitively while others were more willing to compromise. I noticed that some regions witnessed patterns of continuity or rupture that were not witnessed elsewhere.” There could also be peripheral incentives to maintaining a certain degree of continuity.

One type of Muslim land tenure (known as the shirka contract in Arabic) that became very influential in the Christian-ruled rural economy was referred to in Latin documentation as the exaricus tenure (a form a share-cropping). The popularity of this contract in pre-conquest Muslim society clearly increased its incidence in the post-conquest landscape but it was also enhanced by the fact that many of these Muslim contract-holders were recognized by canon law as exempt from paying tithes to the Church, which meant that their Christian landlords could charge them more rent.

Overall, the picture that emerges is one that is relevant to the broader question of whether medieval European societies were tolerant of ethno-religious minority groups. Barton’s work suggests that the Christians were tolerant, to a degree, but only when that tolerance satisfied in some recognizable way their own self-interest. In this world there was little or no respect for other cultures or traditional indigenous practices for equality’s sake.

Barton completed much of the work on this article during his year of research leave, which was generously funded by the College of Arts and Sciences in tandem with a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies. Some of the archival research and initial writing was funded by Faculty Research grants as well as an International Opportunity Grant.

“This funding was vital because I had to visit a ton of local archives in rural Catalonia to compile the research for this article as well as consult some pretty old source editions and studies (some of which are only available in Spanish libraries),” Barton continues. “The documentation is very difficult to interpret, not only because of the way it is written, but because it appears in a variety of languages: Latin, Arabic, and a number of highly irregular medieval Romance languages (most importantly, Catalan and Aragonese). The secondary literature I had to consult appears in French, German, Catalan, and Castilian (Spanish). So there are a lot of languages to keep track of in conducting my research! It's a challenge, but I really enjoy it.”

In addition to a number of article projects in preparation, Barton is currently completing a book manuscript related to this line of research entitled Contested Treasure: Jews and the Quest for Royal Power in the Medieval Crown of Aragon.

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