Saint Louis University

Religious Alterity and Political Power in Medieval Polities

10-11 April 2015
Saint Louis University, Madrid


This conference will examine the phenomenon of powerful religious outsiders in comparative perspective during the long medieval era, from Constantine to the advent of secular modernity, in the hope of augmenting a general understanding of the political dynamics and social settings that permitted such outsiders to be variously elevated, marginalized, empowered, envied, trusted, despised, revered, cashiered, denounced, petitioned, and excluded.

While dominant in-groups naturally enjoy superior access to power in their societies, individuals from outside the in-group (who differ in ethnicity, class, language, religion, etc.) can in fact come to exercise authority on its behalf. 

The medieval period, in which monotheistic religious affiliation functioned as a marker of group identity and a factor of political cohesion, also produced striking examples of powerful religious outsiders: the Jewish and pagan officials barred from office under Theodosius and Honorius; the forebears of John Damascene who administered the early Islamic state; the famous Jewish courtiers of al-Andalus; turcopoles and other mercenaries drawn across religious boundaries into wars around the Mediterranean; the Christian and Jewish officials of the Fatimids; the Muslim retainers at the Norman court; the Muslim, Jewish, and Cuman servants of the Arpad kings; Mongol shamanist and Christian rulers in the Islamic East; the beleaguered Coptic scribes of the Mamluks, and countless others.

Powerful outsiders present certain paradoxes. If they were truly outsiders, in what sense did they wield authority? Did access to power erode their outsider status or cement it? The conjunction of power and alterity generates a dynamic tension that, whether sustained or resolved, reveals much about how historical actors negotiated issues of identity, belonging, and competition for resources.

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Conference Program (updated 27 March) here

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