ASPHS Report

The Spain-North Africa Project had an exciting and auspicious official debut at the 42nd annual meeting of the Association for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies, held in Lisbon from 30 June to 3 July 2011. SNAP fielded three panels that brought attention to the interaction between Iberia and North Africa during the medieval and early modern eras: “Almohad Religion and Political Ideology,” “North Africa in the Early Modern Spanish Imperial World,” and “African Genres: Imagining Africa in Early Modern Spanish Texts.”

The first panel, on Almohad Religion and Political Ideology, featured presentations by Linda Jones (University of Barcelona), Jessica Streit (Cornell University), and Abigail Krasner Balbale (Harvard University). Drawing on textual and architectural sources, these three papers spoke to one another in fascinating ways. Jones’ talk focused on Almohad sermons and the ways in which these were deployed as means of political legitimation. Streit’s paper examined two North African mosques from the Almohad period and the ways in which these addressed the ascendant Almohad regime’s need for political and religious legitimacy. Balbale’s presentation directed attention to the Almohad ruler Ibn Tumart and the theological underpinnings of his project of political legitimation, which he deployed against Muslim rulers, particularly in Iberia, who resisted Almohad hegemony. Taken together, these three talks demonstrated the radical break with the traditional Islamic political order that the rise of the Almohad regime represented.

The panel on North Africa in the Early Modern Spanish Imperial World featured talks by Andrew Devereux (Johns Hopkins University), Adam Beaver (Princeton University), and Yuen-Gen Liang (Wheaton College, MA). Devereux’s paper examined Spanish writers’ transformation of North Africa into a Holy Land as a means of legitimating expansionism in the region and in response to the contestation of royal authority in Castile following the death of Isabella “the Catholic.” Beaver’s presentation employed Peter Martyr’s Legatio Babilonica as a point of departure from which to posit a more nuanced view of Renaissance European perceptions of the Islamic world. Liang’s talk analyzed the ways in which certain aristocratic actors forged the early modern Spanish imperial presence in North Africa, at times acting virtually autonomously of any royal authority. The three papers addressed various Spanish views of North Africa that circulated at different levels of society, while simultaneously showing the gap that frequently existed between assertions of royal authority and the actual exercise of this authority on the ground.

The third SNAP panel, African Genres: Imagining Africa in Early Modern Spanish Texts, featured papers by Miguel Martínez (Williams College), Javier Irigoyen-García (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign), and Barbara Fuchs (University of California, Los Angeles). Drawing more heavily on literary sources than the other two SNAP panels, this one developed a sense of the ways in which both Africa and ideas about Africa operated in the early modern Spanish imaginary. Martínez’s paper focused on a Spanish soldier’s first-hand account of life in a North African presidio, arriving at a representation of North Africa that stood in stark contrast to that espoused by writers in the employ of the Crown. Irigoyen-García’s presentation looked at the manner in which ideas about Africa and the qualities that early modern Spaniards associated with Africa were sometimes deflected onto other (non-African) geographical regions as a means of casting those areas in a particular light. Fuchs’ talk drew on North African captivity plays, specifically Cervantes’ Graciosos. Fuchs examined how, through these characters, Cervantes demonstrated an intimate knowledge of Jewish ritual and custom, yet deployed this knowledge as a means of constructing difference and of excluding “the other.”

Certain themes ran through all three panels, including questions of political legitimacy, the construction of identity, and the ways in which residents of either side of the Straits of Gibraltar saw one another. This resulted in a happy coherence within each panel as well as a healthy dialogue between the three SNAP panels. What is more, we were fortunate to enjoy a strong turnout at our first official collaborative SNAP project, with two of the three panels being standing-room-only in the audience.

On the Saturday evening following the SNAP panels, the executive committee hosted a social gathering where, over cocktails and tapas, the dialogue and collaboration continued.

The Spain-North Africa Project is delighted that our first collaborative group project went so well, and we are confident that this bodes well for future SNAP events. We are looking forward to more opportunities to bring together scholars working on a variety of projects related to Iberia and North Africa and to stimulate academic dialogue and collaboration.