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DATE: Nov. 20, 2003

UM-Dearborn professor publishes history of Muslim community in medieval Italy

DEARBORN---The history of a small Muslim community in a region of Italy during the 13th century can shed light on much broader issues, according to Julie Taylor, an assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Taylor

Taylor is the author of a new book titled Muslims in Medieval Italy, published in August by Lexington Books. Her book, which is the product of her dissertation at Cambridge University, draws on a vast array of primary sources, unpublished manuscripts and archeological data to provide a detailed account of the history of a Muslim colony in the southern Italian city of Lucera during the Middle Ages.

"The colony's history is of historic importance because it expands and enriches our understanding of Muslim-Christian relations during the Middle Ages, particularly in Europe," she said. "The efforts of religious minorities to preserve their identities and the role of intolerance in European history are topics which are understood more fully when the history of this colony is considered."

Elsewhere in Europe, Muslims were being suppressed or expelled while Christian leaders were mounting crusades against Muslim control of the Middle East and trying to enforce a united Christendom across Europe. "In that light, the establishment of a Muslim community 240 kilometers from Rome is significant," Taylor said. "There was clearly the intention not just to subdue but to preserve the Muslim population, even though the Christian rulers may have hoped for its eventual conversion and assimilation."

The Muslim community in Lucera was established in the first half of the 13th century, and was made up Muslims who were forcibly relocated from Sicily after rebelling against Frederick II. While contemporary figures are not very reliable, Taylor estimates that the Muslim population at Lucera eventually reached between 15,000 and 20,000 people.

The colony thrived for 75 years, until it was destroyed by Christian forces in 1300 and its Muslim inhabitants exiled or sold into slavery.

Lucera's history is rich and interesting because of its complexity, Taylor said. "While most of the Muslim colonists were farmers, the diversified economy that developed at Lucera included craftsmen, animal and bee keepers, tailors, potters and doctors," she said. Muslims also served in trusted and important positions in the community, including as judicial officials and military officers.

In fact, the primary avenue of social mobility for the Muslims of Lucera was through military service. "The experience of the Muslim military elite stands in contrast to that of numerous Muslim farmers in Lucera, many of whom are known not to have had enough land to sustain themselves," she said.

In part because of their contributions to the region's economy, Muslims were not expelled from Italy during the Middle Ages, the way they were expelled from Spain during the same period. In fact, when heavy taxation and the harsh demands for labor on construction projects drove people to leave, the ruling king repeatedly ordered officials to stop Muslims from leaving the realm.

"The crown's interest in tax revenues and agricultural production as well as its desire to utilize and preserve a military resource made the retention of the Muslim population an attractive option," Taylor said.

Ironically, at some points, the Christian rulers of the region accepted the Muslim colony in their midst because they needed their resources to support crusades against Muslims in the Holy Land. "The fact that a crusade was being planned against Muslims outside the kingdom appears to have worked in favor of the local population," according to Taylor.

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