You are on page 1of 6

Doina Chiselita 1

Global Cultural Exchange Between Years 800 and 1500 Rising on the ashes of the great Ancient civilization, the Middle Ages was a period of cultural determination lead by people in search of their identity. The great fallen Roman Empire, along with its accepted truths and order, was a consumed fact. Religions, states, social order and nonetheless, cultures, came to suffer great changes that are often regarded as a necessary transition from the Classical period to the Modern one. However, the role of the Middle Ages in the formation of cultures and cultural identities of peoples and states should not be underestimated. Even if the Early Middle Ages (approx. y. 500-800) were times of uncertainty, disorder, invasions and cosmic insecurityi, the period to come, years 800-1500, also known as the High and the Late Middle Ages, was a period of significant cultural development. Therefore, if in the Early Middle Ages we can talk about a sort of cultural indetermination, when people with different beliefs (barbarians, adepts of ancient religions, Christians, the newly emerged Muslims) were thrown in the same pot with no further instructions, then the High and Late Middle Ages bring out the cultural determination, the establishment of linguistic, religious and cultural boundaries and this is when we can observe explicit examples of cultural exchange. Still, I would like to clearly emphasize the fact that cultural interaction wasnt a goal in itself during this time; it was more of an adjacent process to the phenomenon of medieval travel, which, at its turn, was a result of three major purposes: trade, diplomacy/conquest and missionary. Merchants that engaged in long-travel trade had two main routs available, which linked Europe, Asia and Africa: the silk-road, for luxurious goods and the sea-routes, for more common goods, such as stone, steel and building materials. Major trading cities and ports grew rapidly, becoming a meeting place for foreign merchants, traders, brokers, who ultimately exchanged knowledge, religious ideas, philosophical beliefs, stories, legends and other cultural

Doina Chiselita 2

elements. Missionaries wanted to spread their religious ideas on other territories, an ambition that also became a form of cultural exchange. Diplomatic missions and conquest ambitions appeared as a result of cultural and territorial delimitation, but also implied a cultural interaction between the conquerors and the natives. Thus, in this paper, I would like to analyze the cultural exchange between the Christian world and the Islamic world with an emphasis on the Levant area and the Iberian Peninsula. I will consider as comparison subjects the following aspects of cultural exchange: religion, scholarship, art and architecture and trade; as an outcome, I will determine which of these aspects has been the best means of cultural exchange. The territories on the Iberian Peninsula, also corresponding to modern Spain, have been under the rule of the Moors from 711 until 1492, a fact that has had a great impact upon its culture and civilization. The Moors took over the centralized kingdom of the Visigoths, who were fully Romanized and Christianized by that time.

Spain, also known as Al-Andalus,

represented a portal through which the Islamic culture influenced arts, sciences and literature in Europe. In Levant, cultural interaction was facilitated by the Crusades and the existence of the Byzantine Empire, which represented a very powerful cultural entity at the time. First of all, I would like to talk about the religious aspect of cultural exchange. Muslims never tried to impose their religion on the local Christian population, because they were
Those who believe (in the Qur'n), And those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), And the Christians and the Sabians, Any who believe in God And the Last Day, And work righteousness,

generally outnumbered by it. Since the Christian religion was monotheistic, Muslims were more tolerant towards its adepts. This is why, Christians were granted certain autonomy, within the Islamic law, to practice their

Shall have their reward With their Lord: on them Shall be no fear nor shall they grieve.

~ The Holy Qur'an

Doina Chiselita 3

religion, in exchange for tribute. Still, over the years, the laws became harsher, including regulations that prevented Christians from building new churches or repairing the old ones, as well as wearing the same clothes as the Muslims. These laws tried to isolate Muslims from Christians, in order to protect them from the danger of religious contamination. (Wolf). However, cultural exchange became possible in an area outside religion, which concerned the absolute truth and dealt with matters of logic and philosophy. As opposed to the Christian religion, Islam was much more understanding and open minded towards ancient writings. Therefore, in the development of the Islamic thought, scholars belonging to this civilization studied ancient science, mathematics, medicine, translating the works of Aristotle, Archimedes, Galen, Ptolemy, and Euclid into Arab. Al-Andalus became a scholastic center, which influenced European thought is a tremendous manner; for example, Gerard of Cremona considered himself a student of the Arabic science; he studied the works of Ptolemy and translated Avicenna from Arabic into Latin; his translations were very beneficial to the European scholars at the time and prepared the way for that conflict of ideas out of which sprang the Scholasticism of the thirteenth century (Turner). Therefore, this means of cultural interaction was much more efficient that the one based on religion. However, scholastic interaction found its limitation in Churchs hostile attitude towards a more open-minded style of thought, which is why some European scholars were reluctant to Islamic knowledge.

Doina Chiselita 4

Art and architecture was possibly the most effective means of cross-cultural exchange. The earliest synthesis of Christian and Islamic art in Spain is the Mozarabic style; the Mozarabic architecture, as we can observe in the picture, is characterized by a lack or minimal exterior decoration, as well as the use of the horse shoe arch- a very typical Islamic architectural element, as well as the use of column as support. In painting, the most common Islamic identifier is the use of floral and knotting elements, as
Figure 1: Church of St. Thomas, Spain

illustrated in Figure 2. By the end of the 11th century, Islamic art has grown even more influential, Spanish art and architecture
Figure 2: Miniature painting, 1052

encompassing elements such as geometric patterns, tiles,

brickwork and ornamental metals (Mitchell). By 14th century, architecture in Spain was a harmonious fusion between the Islamic and Christian styles; distinct characteristics were the horse-shoe arches, the wooden arches and the stylized column capitals complemented by the wall decorated with geometrical patterns and calligraphy. Islam, at its turn, took in some of the Christian art styles, mainly through their interaction with the Crusaders; Muslims incorporated in their Mosques elements taken from the Romanesque style such as the heavy columns, with their thick and massive base, as well as the sculpted elements on the facade, as illustrated in Figure 3; Muslim painters were also influenced by Christian iconography. In
Figure 3: The Aqsa Mosque

Doina Chiselita 5

Figure 4, Muslim poet Rumi is represented in the center of the painting, with an aura-like glow around his head, incorporating in his own body the structure of a mosque- a composition very similar to the Christian representation of church founders (or saints) and image of the church as an edificatory source of light.

Figure 4: Poet Rumi

Trade was also an important means of cultural exchange;

Muslim travelers along the Silk Road brought to Europe, for the first time, the art of paper making, which significantly changed the concept of writing and printing, and helped speeding up the process of knowledge spreading. The art of paper making was brought from China, which underlines the true global nature of this kind of cultural exchange (Reaching Out: Cross-Cultural interactions). In conclusion, the most effective means of cultural-exchange between the Christian World and the Islamic world was art and architecture. Artistic elements, such as arch shapes and ornaments, traveled among these two distinct cultures, either to create a hybrid style (like in Spain) either to be incorporated in an already existing style (Muslim architecture and painting). Religion, as proven in this essay, has been an ineffective means of cultural exchange because Muslims aimed to avoid any kind of religious intertwining; therefore, Muslims and Christians in Spain were exposed to a certain religious segregation. Scholar interaction was a better way of cultural interaction, limited however, by ideological barriers in Christian Europe. Last, but not least, trade represented a more practical way of cultural exchange, which reached global proportions indeed, but it did not manage to capture the profoundness and the intensity of artistic cultural interaction.

Doina Chiselita 6

By the year 800 many of the people in Western Europe did not adopt the Christian religion, encountering instead a mixture of paganism and Christianity ii Note the interaction between Christians and Muslims

Works cited and consulted:

Mitchell, Rosie. "Spain: Islamic and European Influences in Spanish Art.". Turner, William. "Gerard of Cremona." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 4 Dec. 2010 <>. "Reaching Out: Cross-Cultural interactions." 3 December 2010 <>. Wolf, Kenneth Baxter. Christian Martyrs in Muslim Spain (THE LIBRARY OF IBERIAN RESOURCES ONLINE). 1999. 3 December 2010 <>.