A response to: Marco Di Branco. Review of Luigi Andrea Berto, Christians and Muslims in Early Medieval Italy: Perceptions, Encounters, and Clashes. Speculum 97/4 (2022): 1159-60. doi: 10.1086/721886.

Author’s Response (Luigi Andrea Berto, Western Michigan University)

Before presenting a qualitative answer to Marco Di Branco’s review of my book, it is necessary to present some data. The review is 986 words long. The first paragraph (86 words) briefly describes the activities of the Muslims in Italy during the early Middle Ages. The second paragraph (212 words) mentions—according to the reviewer, of course—the main points of the book. The third and the fourth paragraphs (659 words) emphasize the weaknesses of the book. In the conclusion (29 words), Di Branco states that “despite these shortcomings, the book remains a useful tool.” The lengths of the different sections indicate clearly that this is a very unbalanced review.

I will not comment here on the first paragraph. The staff of Speculum has taken care of the issues related to it. The description of the book says almost nothing about its contents, the main goal of which is to present the views of both the Christians and the Muslims in early medieval Italy. Moreover, the reviewer made some remarkable mistakes which indicate that he read the book very quickly (to say the least).

According to Di Branco, “it should also be emphasized that the negative vision of Muslims (which was transmitted almost unchanged to the historiography of the immediately following centuries) is particularly accentuated in the writings of the populations of the southern regions, more subject to incursions, while the historiography of northern Europe certainly does not identify Muslims as the enemy par excellence.” First, my book is about Italy not about Europe, so the reference to “historiography of northern Europe” is completely misplaced. Second, the fourth chapter of the book, “Some Light in the Darkness: Reading between the Lines of the Zealots’ Criticism,” unmistakably proves that in the works of some southern Italian authors, i.e., the writers who lived in the area that was “more subject to incursions,” there are several instances of nuanced descriptions of the Muslims which are absent in the texts produced by northern Italian writers. My book, therefore, says exactly the opposite of what Di Branco has stated.

Third, in the section of the review dealing with the perceived “weaknesses” of the book, Di Branco makes the following critique:

In the first place, there is no clear historical framework that guides the reader in the complex concatenation of events that involved Christians and Muslims in southern Italy between the ninth and twelfth centuries: in particular, there is no precise awareness of the fact that the Islamic presence in mainland Italy was linked to a structured and planned attempt at conquest, about which there are evident traces in the available documentation (see, for example, F. Marazzi, “Ita ut facta videatur Neapolis Panormus vel Africa: Geopolitica della presenza islamica nei domini di Napoli, Gaeta, Salerno e Benevento nel IX secolo,” Schede Medievali 45 [2007]: 159–202).

However, it is evident from the introduction of the book that my goal was not to write a narrative history. I believe that for a book addressed to non-specialists, but based on the analysis of the primary sources, a brief summary of events (provided in the introduction) is enough. One could write an encyclopedia about the Muslim attacks on southern Italy and, above all, about how those events have been interpreted and distorted.

More significantly, the available primary sources do not indicate that in the ninth century “the Islamic presence in mainland Italy was linked to a structured and planned attempt at conquest” at all. (Two tenth tenth-century authors, Liudprand of Cremona and Benedict of Soratte, transformed the creation of some Muslim bases in the mainland into attempts of conquest for propaganda motives.) The article cited by Di Branco to support his conquest theory (a piece written by F. Marazzi), relied on outdated editions of the sources, misinterpreted several other sources, and did not take into consideration some scholarship written in the early 2000s. The reviewer recently wrote a book (915. La battaglia del Garigliano: Cristiani e musulmani nell’Italia medievale [2019]) trying to support his argument but he misinterpreted many sources and ignored many others. I have already written an article discussing the main issues of his book (“Terra conquistata/di conquista e predoni-jihadisti. Fonti e recente storiografia sui musulmani nell’Italia peninsulare altomedievale,” Mediterranean Chronicle 11 [2021]: 141–59).

Di Branco then takes issue with the utilization of the source material: “it is rather surprising to note that the author uses in a very limited way the Arabic sources, which are always cited from the old Italian version of the Bibliotheca arabo-sicula by Michele Amari, a custom from which it is now necessary to emancipate oneself in order to better contextualize the information provided by the Islamic historians.” It is true that I do not know Arabic and I never claimed that I know it. Nonetheless, I have used all the relevant Arabic sources, most of which are available, unfortunately, only in a nineteenth century Italian translation. (A few years ago, Giuseppe Mandalà stated that he is preparing a new translation of those sources. I look forward to it.) Beside the texts I have used in my book, there are no other relevant Arabic sources about that period, with the exception of brief excerpts that can be useful for an histoire évenementielle but, again, this was not the goal of my book. In the appendix of the volume, I briefly described both Christian and Muslim sources.

Finally, Di Branco states, “The lack of direct knowledge of Arab sources and, more generally, of the Islamic historical, religious, and cultural context, is also a source of misunderstandings of some importance. For example, the author does not clearly explain the origin of the name ‘Saracens,’ which Latin (and Greek) sources use to define Muslims.” Di Branco adds 408 words about this point! First, the “Greek” origin of the name “Saracen” has nothing to do with “direct knowledge of Arab sources and, more generally, of the Islamic historical, religious, and cultural context.” Second, of course I know how some Arabs were defined before the rise of Islam. Again, my book is about early medieval Italy and I believe that the “Greek” origin of that definition is irrelevant for the early medieval Italian context. Moreover, as I emphasized in an article about the biographies of the early medieval Sicilian and Calabrian saints (“Musulmani e cristiani nell’agiografia sui santi siculo-calabresi altomedievali,” Mediterranean Chronicle 9 [2019]: 103–48), those texts mainly use the terms “Agarenes” and “Ishmaelites” and some of them refer to the supposed biblical origin of the words “Saracens,” “Agarenes,” and “Ishmaelites” as the Latin sources did. So, the very long display of erudition by Di Branco is completely out of place.

I leave it to the reader to decide if this book review engages meaningfully and accurately with the book.


Reviewer’s Response (Marco Di Branco, Università di Roma La Sapienza)

I would like to thank L. A. Berto for his reply: I think that debates and even controversies are always interesting and useful, provided that the limits of mutual respect are not crossed and the discussion does not descend into a clash reminiscent of Cavalleria rusticana.

As far as content is concerned, I would like to reply briefly to three of Berto’s objections to my review.

1) According to Berto, his analysis of the documents “unmistakably proves that in the works of some southern Italian authors . . . there are several instances of nuanced descriptions of the Muslims.” I agree. In fact, I wrote that from some of the texts examined by Berto, it clearly emerges that Muslims “were not considered the embodiment of evil or even that they had been the worst opponents of the Christian people; indeed, in some cases they had shown humanity, a dowry that on the contrary many Christian rulers had shown not to possess.” And yet, the texts cited by Berto in the third chapter of his book constitute an important exception in a landscape strongly characterized by an anti-Muslim sentiment. An over-emphasis on this “anomaly” risks losing sight of the overall context. Moreover, Berto misses that my statement on the importance of a comparison between the historiography of Northern Europe and the Italian one is not, of course, a critique of Berto’s work, but represents a general observation made by me. In fact, Berto does not undertake such a comparison. It is instead present in a fundamental work by Norman Daniel (The Arabs and Mediaeval Europe [1979]) and from it we can deduce important information useful for understanding and better contextualizing the Italian situation.

2) Regarding the question of the origin of the names “Saracens,” “Ishmaelites,” and “Agarenes,” I must reiterate that in a book addressed to non-specialists it would have been extremely useful to explain, even briefly, the meaning and the etymology of the various terms by which Muslims are described in Latin sources.

3) According to Berto, the available primary sources do not indicate that in the ninth century the Islamic presence in mainland Italy was linked to a structured and planned attempt at conquest. The question is: what kinds of sources? This is not the place to discuss this complex problem, but here I would like to point out that this apodictic observation is based exclusively on Latin sources, without even a complete analysis of those actually available. To take one example, in his account of the ǧihād by the emir of Ifrīqiyya Ibrāhīm II (p. 42), on which the historian Ibn al-Atīr gives us important details (Ibn al-Athiri, Chronicon quod perfectissimum inscribitur, ed. C. J. Tornberg, 14 vols. [1851–76], 6:350 and 7:195–99), Berto (who however admits that the emir “was planning to conquer the southern part of the Italian Peninsula” [57]) does not mention that, according to Ibn al-Atīr, this ǧihād would have initially had the purpose of conquering the Sicilian strongholds (ḥuṣūn) that still resisted the Muslims, but his ultimate goal would have been much more ambitious: that is, to seize Constantinople (al-Qusṭanṭīniyya). As Mohamed Talbi rightly notes, “les sources latines et arabes s’accordent pour prêter ce rêve à Ibrāhīm” (L’émirat aghlabide [186296/800909]: Histoire politique, [1966], 321 n. 1). In fact, the will to conquer Constantinople is explicitly attributed to Ibrāhīm also by the Acta translationis sancti Severini of the Neapolitan chronicler Ioannes Diaconus (who lived between the ninth and tenth centuries), in which the author recalls the measures taken by the cities of southern Italy in anticipation of the attack of Ibrāhīm and reports a declaration by the emir, who claims to want to seize Rome and Constantinople (“Vadant tantum et certo certius teneant, quia non solum illos, verum etiam et civitatem Petruli senis destruam. Hoc enim unum restat, ut Constantinopolim proficiscar et conteram in impetu fortitudinis meae”: Acta translationis sancti Severini, ed. G. Waitz [1878], 452–59, at 455). Furthermore, the vita of Saint Elias the Younger (Vita di sant’Elia il Giovane, ed. and trans. Giuseppe Rossi Taibbi [1962], 82) and various Byzantine historical sources show that the situation in southern Italy after the fall of Taormina greatly worried the emperor Leo VI, leading him to allocate a considerable sum of money to support the Byzantine army established in Calabria (see, for example, from the Corpus Scriptorium Historiae Byzantinae, edited by Immanuel Bekker: Ioannes Cameniata, De excidio Thessalonicensi [1838], 59, p. 569; Theophanes continuatis, 6.20–21, pp. 366–67; Georgius Monachus, 20, p. 862 and 29–30, pp. 862–64; Leo Grammaticus [1842], p. 277; as well as Symeonis Magistri et Logothetae Chronicon, ed. Staffan Wahlgren [2006], 32.41, p. 286).

Berto, who explicitly states that he does not know Arabic, should equip himself. Languages are in fact a fundamental key to enter a complex world such as that of medieval southern Italy. It’s never too late.


Author’s Reply (Luigi Andrea Berto, Western Michigan University)

I wish to thank Marco Di Branco for his comments to my response to his book review. I concur that debates are always useful. However, I am puzzled about his reference to “mutual respect” and even more so about his reference to “Cavalleria rusticana.” Probably Di Branco does not like to be told that he copied the first paragraph of his review verbatim from the publisher’s description of the book that he was to review and that he wrote an extremely unbalanced review (to say the least).

This is not the place to dwell on lengthy analyses. So I invite those interested in Christian-Muslim interactions to read the book and, if they wish, decide how relevant Di Branco’s remarks are.

Let me just remind the reader that I have mentioned the Muslims’ attempts to conquer Italy (it would be better to say a part of it) in 902 and in the 970s and 980s that went no further than Cosenza (Calabria, i.e., the tip of the Italian peninsula) (p. 5). I also examined how Emir Ibrahim II (d. 902) is described in Latin and Greek hagiographic texts, pointing out that those sources are more useful for understanding the mindset of their authors and audiences than they are for reconstructing events (pp. 81, 85). I wonder what book Di Branco has read.

I agree with Di Branco that languages are a fundamental key for examining early medieval southern Italy. Equally important is learning to work as professional historians. Fortunately, since nineteenth-century positivism, many steps have been taken in this field. I agree that it is never too late to learn.

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