What is a minority? How did members of minority groups in the medieval Mediterranean world interact with contemporaries belonging to other groups? In what ways did those contacts affect their social positions and identities? The essays collected in this volume approach these questions from a variety of angles, examining polemic, social norms, economic exchange, linguistic transformations, and power dynamics.
The terms 'minority' and 'majority' in their contemporary senses are modern inventions. Nevertheless, they are commonly applied to pre-modern societies, even by professional historians. This new collection of essays by distinguished scholars explores the applicability and limits of the term in one historical setting, albeit a broad one: the lands around the Mediterranean Sea in the medieval period.
The editors argue that the term 'minority' retains utility, despite its drawbacks. For example, it is useful as a term to describe the mutual dependency of various pre-modern people groups—many of them defined by their religious affiliation—upon one another. Those who wielded power around pre-modern Mediterranean often belonged to ethnic or religious demographic minorities. Conversely, subject populations were often fractured into a kaleidoscope of shifting and overlapping identity-groups, none of which was a demographic majority. 'Minority' thus helpfully denotes a condition of dependency and subordination in which any group might participate, in different ways and in different degrees. It is less accurately used, however, as a static, permanent descriptor for a particular group. The essays in the volume offer case studies that shed light on these questions in relation to two major themes. The first theme is interactions among subordinate, dependent, and marginal groups, rather than between them and the dominant, central groups in a given society. The second theme is the seeming paradox of 'minority' group members who rose to political power and influence. The authors of the essays in the volume contribute ground-breaking studies of notions of 'minority' in relation to these two themes in a variety of localities, from early Islamic Syria to late-medieval Portugal, among many of the region's myriad religious and ethnic sub-groups.