By Published: Dec. 14, 2021

A new book by a religious studies professor explores the West’s origins in the ambiguities, intersections and nuances of the Mediterranean

European history has long been written in the tales of kings. Together with two colleagues, a University of Colorado Boulder professor wants to reframe that narrative away from the upper echelon to instead focus on the melting pot region reminiscent of today’s society: the Mediterranean.

The version of history that’s commonly taught, focusing on medieval Christian Europe, was usually dominated by white Christian males in academia and in primary sources, according to Brian Catlos. As a result, it excluded other perspectives of how Western civilization developed, such as those of the Jewish and Muslim faiths, women and lower-class peoples throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, creating an incomplete picture of a shared world history.

In his upcoming co-authored textbooks to be published by the University of California Press, The Sea in the Middle and its sourcebook companion Texts from the Middle, Catlos, graduate director in the religious studies department and director of the CU Mediterranean Studies Group, presents a new narrative of history for students and educators that examines how the cultural hot bed of the Mediterranean fundamentally contributed to Western civilization and modern culture.

“The development of what we call the West has been looked at from a pretty exclusive, Eurocentric perspective,” Catlos says. “For a long time, the way history was written was the history of kings, princes, knights, popes and bishops, essentially the (Western European) upper-classes. And the problem with that approach is that it's full of built-in biases.”

For Catlos, studying history is like holding up a mirror to our present culture, with our beliefs and identities affecting how we look back and observe the trajectory of history.

“We think of history as facts,” Catlos says. “But it's also a reflection of ourselves and the way we see the world and our own aspirations.”

According to Catlos, the way history was traditionally studied and taught began to shift in the late 20th century, where “academia became more diverse, and what's regarded as our mainstream society became more diverse, ethnically and religiously most of all. They started broadening our view of history because they wanted to talk about the roots of their own experiences.”

With this expansion of scholarship to once-excluded perspectives, “it became pretty obvious that what we call the West, this narrow definition of medieval Christian Europe, was not appropriate. Instead, what we see in fact is a whole interconnected system that involved people from Africa, West Asia, Europe and people who came from different ethnic backgrounds, who were physiologically different and who were culturally and religiously different.”

This region of interconnection during the height of the Middle Ages was the Mediterranean, a “crossroads between three continents … that was important religiously to Christians, Muslims and Jews (and) became a zone of not only encounter and conflict between people that identified with different religious, ethnic, linguistic cultures but an area of integration,” Catlos explains.

We think of history as facts. But it's also a reflection of ourselves and the way we see the world and our own aspirations."

In The Sea in the Middle, Catlos and coauthors Thomas Burman (Notre Dame) and Mark Meyerson (Toronto) wanted to “toss out the old narrative and build something from the ground up,” which included relocating the beginning of the Middle Ages from the Sack of Rome in 410 to the rise of Islam in 650.

When Islam emerges “as the last iteration of Abrahamic religion into the Greek Mediterranean,” The Sea in the Middle traces the shared history of culture and religion in the Middle Ages from the Byzantine Empire through the three Islamic Caliphates which would dominate the region.

By 1050, “the Mediterranean had become this hyper-connected, hyper-wealthy, hyper-sophisticated place,” Catlos says. When a climate crisis destabilized the region, “all the people that lived around the edges wanted to get in on the action.”

When these civilizations vied for control over the Mediterranean, they still interacted and integrated through unlikely alliances, trade partnerships and even conquests in which the victors had to negotiate with a populace that followed a different culture than their own.

“If you're a conqueror, what makes you a success?” Catlos asks. “It is the ability of the people you've conquered to produce resources for you … You don't destroy the country; you don't eliminate the ruling class; you co-opt them instead.”

Brian Catlos

Brian Catlos is one of the authors of these new books.

In the conflicts of the Mediterranean, most of “these various conquerors were smart enough to do that. And what emerged as a result was this world in which diversity of different peoples and different religions was so normal, it was almost unremarked on,” Catlos explains.

Along with politics, law and culture, integration occurred across the Abrahamic religions, which, in theory, was supposed to be set in stone for each of the faiths. But, in reality, the Mediterranean kingdoms had to concede to religious diversity and even blurring for their societies to function smoothly and hold together.

Religion “dictated who you could marry, the type of clothes you wore, sometimes the sorts of foods you ate, sometimes the types of jobs you could do, at least in theory. In fact, there was lots of blurring through conversion, or Muslims celebrating Christian holidays, and Christians celebrating Muslim holidays, just because they're fun,” Catlos explains.

Catlos argues that through this integration of religions, cultures and ideas, the West was able to develop into the civilization that we live in and experience today.

In contrast to traditional accounts of the West that paint “a providential arc of history leading to some state of European perfection,” Catlos argues that the West emerged through “a historical accident that came about because of these encounters” in the Mediterranean.

“The real Middle Ages, in all its fuzziness, ambiguity and mixture, is really a lot like the world we live in today,” Catlos says. “Your one parent might be one religion, and your other parent might be another religion. Or one parent might come from one part of the world, and the other from another part of the world. And I think it's important to reclaim that truth, not (just) as a political posture, but simply because that's the way it was.”

This framing will serve as he basis for a new course that CU Boulder will offer this spring—HUMN/RST 3801: “Muslims, Christians, Jews and the Mediterranean Origins of the West”—which Catlos will teach, utilizing these textbooks to dive into the interconnections between the various cultures and religions throughout Mediterranean history.

Catlos especially hopes to surprise and provoke his students into critical thought and discussions by exposing them to various documents and artifacts in the textbooks. They’ll be examining “mysterious” and “ambivalent” artifacts such as cups, mosques and art pieces, which he hopes will “engage their imagination (to) see if they can figure them out,” Catlos says.

In his upcoming textbooks and class, Catlos wishes to present “history as a human endeavor. It's not about somebody owning part of it. Just like culture, it's a shared project. And hopefully people will get excited about that.”