The best books on the multi-religious Mediterranean

Brian Catlos Author Of Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors: Faith, Power, and Violence in the Age of Crusade and Jihad
By Brian Catlos

Who am I?

Having lived in North America, Europe, and the Middle East, and visited many, many more countries, I am a traveler first and foremost. I travel because I like getting to know different types of people and seeing how they live and how they think about the world and about their place in it. As a historian, I can travel back in time to places even more exotic than one can visit today. My favorite place is the Mediterranean world in the Middle Ages – an exciting environment where Christians, Muslims, and Jews from Africa, Europe, and Asia, came together sometimes in conflict, but as often as not in collaboration or friendship.


I wrote...

Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors: Faith, Power, and Violence in the Age of Crusade and Jihad

By Brian Catlos,

Book cover of Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors: Faith, Power, and Violence in the Age of Crusade and Jihad

What is my book about?

The Mediterranean world of 1050–1200 is usually seen as an age of intractable conflict between Christians, Muslims, and Jews – of holy war, Crusades, and religious violence. Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors takes from Christian and Muslim Spain, through North Africa and Italy and on to Egypt, the Holy Land, and Byzantium, surveying the politics and society of this period from the ground up and showing that despite warfare and rhetoric of religious violence members of the three religious communities were deeply embroiled in each other’s affairs.

We find Jews and Christians wielding power in Muslim kingdoms and Muslims and Jews in positions of power in Crusader Europe, and Crusaders and Muslims launching alliances to battle their own co-religionists. Religion may have been the language of conflict but it was pragmatism and personal ambition that drove politics.

The books I picked & why

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Visions of Deliverance: Moriscos and the Politics of Prophecy in the Early Modern Mediterranean

By Mayte Green-Mercado,

Book cover of Visions of Deliverance: Moriscos and the Politics of Prophecy in the Early Modern Mediterranean

Why this book?

This is a really splendid book and an original approach to the history of the Morisco community of Spain as they struggled for survival and sought to gain either recognition as Spaniards or rehabilitation as Muslim. Mercado uses a range of sources in Latin, Spanish, Arabic, Turkish, and Aljamiado, to examine the internal religious life of these forcibly converted Muslims. Her entrée into this world—through the prophecies and predictions, made by Moriscos themselves or as gleaned through the reading of “new” inquisitorial records and through the reaction of the Catholic and royal establishment.

Illuminating a dark corner of sixteenth-century European and Islamic history, Green-Mercado presents both the Old Christians and Moriscos with admirable nuance, while at the same time avoiding both a moralizing or nostalgic approach to the subject. 

Visions of Deliverance: Moriscos and the Politics of Prophecy in the Early Modern Mediterranean

By Mayte Green-Mercado,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Visions of Deliverance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Visions of Deliverance, Mayte Green-Mercado traces the circulation of Muslim and crypto-Muslim apocalyptic texts known as joferes through formal and informal networks of merchants, Sufis, and other channels of diffusion among Muslims and Christians across the Mediterranean from Constantinople and Venice to Morisco towns in eastern Spain. The movement of these prophecies from the eastern to the western edges of the Mediterranean illuminates strategies of Morisco cultural and political resistance, reconstructing both productive and oppositional interactions and exchanges between Muslims and Christians in the early modern Mediterranean.

Challenging a historiography that has primarily understood Morisco apocalyptic thought as the…


In Good Faith: Arabic Translation and Translators in Early Modern Spain

By Claire M. Gilbert,

Book cover of In Good Faith: Arabic Translation and Translators in Early Modern Spain

Why this book?

Gilbert digs beneath the surface to uncover the hidden history of the people who really made things happen in the Spanish Empire. In Good Faith demonstrates that during the “Morisco century” (1492–1614) the Arabic language remained vital and of crucial importance to Spain’s colonial enterprise despite its official elimination and social marginalization. She focuses on Spanish-Arabic translators who were drawn from among the Morisco elite, and who found agency and accrued benefits for themselves and their families as well as their larger communities, by performing this crucial service for the Spanish Habsburgs.

It is a study that connects the Iberian Peninsula not only to North Africa, but to the broader European, Mediterranean, and Atlantic worlds at the dawn of the age of European colonialism and Orientalism. 

In Good Faith: Arabic Translation and Translators in Early Modern Spain

By Claire M. Gilbert,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In Good Faith as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The century that followed the fall of Granada at the end of 1491 and the subsequent consolidation of Christian power over the Iberian Peninsula was marked by the introduction of anti-Arabic legislation and the development of hostile cultural norms affecting Arabic speakers. Yet as Spanish institutions of power first restricted and then eliminated Arabic language use, marginalizing Arabic-speaking communities, officially sanctioned translation to and from Arabic played an increasingly crucial role in brokering the administration of the growing Spanish empire and its overseas territories. The move on the peninsula from a regime of legal pluralism to one of religious and…


The Captive Sea: Slavery, Communication, and Commerce in Early Modern Spain and the Mediterranean

By Daniel Hershenzon,

Book cover of The Captive Sea: Slavery, Communication, and Commerce in Early Modern Spain and the Mediterranean

Why this book?

Another intimate view of Mediterranean social history, The Captive Sea: brings to light the way networks of captivity and ransom operating between Hapsburg Spain, Ottoman Algiers, Morocco, and beyond helped shape the Mediterranean as an integrated region in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Hershenzon tracks the interactions of various agents involved in the ransom economy— imperial bureaucrats, clergy, merchants, diplomats, renegades.

Combining a wide-angle frame of geopolitics with the particular cases registered in letters, petitions, Inquisition reports, and other archival sources, he reconstructs some remarkable stories that illustrate the complexity of networks of interaction and circulation: stories of individual captives like Fatima, daughter of an Algerian Janissary (slave soldier), or the connected histories of captives (in some cases of quite modest social station) from both sides of the religious divide, repatriated through the correspondence of wives or mothers back home. 

The Captive Sea: Slavery, Communication, and Commerce in Early Modern Spain and the Mediterranean

By Daniel Hershenzon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Captive Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Captive Sea, Daniel Hershenzon explores the entangled histories of Muslim and Christian captives-and, by extension, of the Spanish Empire, Ottoman Algiers, and Morocco-in the seventeenth century to argue that piracy, captivity, and redemption helped shape the Mediterranean as an integrated region at the social, political, and economic levels. Despite their confessional differences, the lives of captives and captors alike were connected in a political economy of ransom and communication networks shaped by Spanish, Ottoman, and Moroccan rulers; ecclesiastic institutions; Jewish, Muslim, and Christian intermediaries; and the captives themselves, as well as their kin.
Hershenzon offers both a comprehensive…


That Most Precious Merchandise: The Mediterranean Trade in Black Sea Slaves, 1260-1500

By Hannah Barker,

Book cover of That Most Precious Merchandise: The Mediterranean Trade in Black Sea Slaves, 1260-1500

Why this book?

That Most Precious Merchandise offers a much needed and evocatively-written reassessment of the experience of slavery in the late medieval Mediterranean. Tracing the networks of the slave trade from the Black Sea to Genoa, Venice, and Cairo, it argues that the Italian maritime powers and the Mamluk sultanate shared a similar approach to slavery. By re-assessing Black Sea slavery from the vantage point of both Italy and Egypt, Barker discerns commonalities in systems and approaches to slavery across cultures—she calls this a common culture of slavery. She presents as the principal themes of the book a series of conceptions and practices of slavery that cut across confessional and cultural lines, upending a number of fundamental paradigms that have shaped, and limited, the scholarly terrain. 

That Most Precious Merchandise: The Mediterranean Trade in Black Sea Slaves, 1260-1500

By Hannah Barker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked That Most Precious Merchandise as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The history of the Black Sea as a source of Mediterranean slaves stretches from ancient Greek colonies to human trafficking networks in the present day. At its height during the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, the Black Sea slave trade was not the sole source of Mediterranean slaves; Genoese, Venetian, and Egyptian merchants bought captives taken in conflicts throughout the region, from North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans, and the Aegean Sea. Yet the trade in Black Sea slaves provided merchants with profit and prestige; states with military recruits, tax revenue, and diplomatic influence; and households with the service of…


Piracy and Law in the Ottoman Mediterranean

By Joshua M. White,

Book cover of Piracy and Law in the Ottoman Mediterranean

Why this book?

Focusing on the period beginning with 1571’s epic battle of Lepanto and extending through the so-called “Northern Invasion” of the English and the Dutch into the Mediterranean, this book examines the central role piracy played in the emergence of an “Ottoman Mediterranean” as a legal space shaped by multiple, ever-shifting factors. In this wide-ranging and beautifully written study, archival sources spanning both religious and imperial spheres of law become windows onto the astonishing complexity of an early modern Mediterranean in which there were “no hard and fast lines separating Christian and Muslim spheres, but rather a culture of legal pluralism in which merchants, travelers, and seamen took advantage of multiple overlapping jurisdictions.” Evocatively written, blending narrative and analysis, White brings this exciting age to vivid life.

Piracy and Law in the Ottoman Mediterranean

By Joshua M. White,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Piracy and Law in the Ottoman Mediterranean as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The 1570s marked the beginning of an age of pervasive piracy in the Mediterranean that persisted into the eighteenth century. Nowhere was more inviting to pirates than the Ottoman-dominated eastern Mediterranean. In this bustling maritime ecosystem, weak imperial defenses and permissive politics made piracy possible, while robust trade made it profitable. By 1700, the limits of the Ottoman Mediterranean were defined not by Ottoman territorial sovereignty or naval supremacy, but by the reach of imperial law, which had been indelibly shaped by the challenge of piracy.

Piracy and Law in the Ottoman Mediterranean is the first book to examine Mediterranean…


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