How did Christians in the ninth century view the Muslim world?

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History and Exegesis in Bernard the Monk c.867

 

It is often said that travel broadens the mind. Such a view, however, overlooks the role that we as travellers play in shaping the worlds that we describe to others: what and whom we choose to describe, how, and why. Often, writing about ‘other places’ serves to remind us about the things that we value most in our own lives and how we seek to situate ourselves within a dynamic and changing world. For writers in the ancient and medieval world, writing about travel to faraway places was not always about a process of discovery, but an experience tinged with suspicion, danger, and the belief in the extraordinary nature of those who lived beyond more familiar borders. Wonderous as those places might be, travel served as a reminder that there was, indeed, no place like home.

Around c.867 a Christian monk called Bernard journeyed from Rome to Jerusalem to visit the tomb of Christ and other holy places, which were then within the territories of the Muslim Abbasid Caliphate. Travelling through Italy, Bernard boarded a ship to Egypt and made his way to the Holy Land, visiting Jerusalem and Bethlehem, before returning to Italy and ending his journey at the monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy. Bernard’s journey is described in a text known as the ‘Itinerary of Bernard the Monk’, composed shortly after his journey in c.867. Since its publication by Jean Mabillon in the 17th century, the text has been highly prized by historians for its insights into travel between western Europe and the Islamic world in the early Middle Ages. Nevertheless, as this article explores, a more detailed reading of the text indicates that Bernard’s Itinerary is more than a straightforward travel narrative and must be read as a specific response to the political situation in ninth-century Italy at the time of his journey.

The 860s was a tumultuous time in western Europe, as Viking raids across the British Isles, civil war in southern Italy, and the expansion of Muslim Aghlabid power in Sicily, reshaped the political landscape of the world that Bernard knew. In his travels through Italy, for example, Bernard describes the aftermath of the Lombard civil war in Benevento and the enslavement of its people by Arab raiders — a fate that Bernard attributes to divine punishment for their transgression of Christian law. By attributing their enslavement to divine punishment, Bernard reveals his own attempts to situate the events of his day within a timeline of Biblical prophecy. Following in the footsteps of the Israelites of the Old Testament, Bernard travelled through Egypt and bore witness to sites that confirmed God’s support for ‘his people’. Powerful though the Abbasid Caliphate of the 860s may have been, Bernard’s journey also brought reminders of the Biblical Babylon and Egypt, whose once formidable powers had also faded in accordance within divine will. For Bernard, the experience of travel was not one of discovery of the Islamic world in its diversity and complexity, but one that confirmed to him and his readers the transience of human dominion, the future promise of peace, and the redemptive power of Christ.

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