The Medieval Mediterranean: Inland Sea or Southern Border?

Das Mittelmeer im Mittelalter: Binnenmeer oder Grenze?

Abstract: Thousands of lives are sacrificed to the EU’s border regime in the Mediterranean every year. As a means of justification serves the reference to the medieval Mediterraneum constructed as the border between a ‘Christian Occident’ and an ‘Islamic Orient’. Historical research knows that this image is wrong, but cannot implement its knowledge in public discourse..
Languages: English, German


Every year, the EU’s border regime in the Mediterranean costs thousands of lives. This massive death toll is justified by referring to the medieval Mediterraneum, construed as a border between a “Christian Occident” and an “Islamic Orient.” Historical research knows that this conception is wrong, but has thus far been unable to implement its knowledge in public discourse.


Shades of Borders

Geographically, the Mediterranean is an inland sea that connects the coasts of the Middle East, North Africa and Southern Europe. Europe is separated from Asia and Africa only by the narrow straits of the Bosporus and the Strait of Gibraltar, two continents being connected by the Sinai land bridge. The peninsulas of the Peloponnese and Italy as well as the various islands and archipelagos additionally facilitate crossing the Mediterranean. Current policy, however, is dominated by defining the Mediterranean as the southern border of Europe, where the Euro…

Categories: 8 (2020) 2

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  1. To all our non-English speaking readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator for 8 European languages. Just copy and paste.

    Many thanks for this fascinating exploration of the real and perceived histories of the Mediterranean and the boundaries of Europe. The alignment you identify between the misrepresentation of Europe’s historic borders in contemporary political discourse and the ways in which the medieval past of the region is representated in school history education is striking.

    I wonder, however, how far changing school teaching, so that it is more in line with contemporary scholarship, will result in positive changes in cultural perceptions in society more generally? It may well be that such changes would be effective. However, if there are other factors shaping public perceptions, in addition to school representations, then it is possible that changes to school history might have little impact. You mention other ideological influences, including the legacies of biological racist ideology, that help to shape perceptions.

    Perhaps we overestimate the power of historical accuracy and underestimate the power of narrative form to shape perception. It may be that simple binary narratives – that errect cognitive barriers based on racist or religious ideologies – have more potential to influence popular perceptions, for anthropological reasons, than narratives based in nuanced and complex models of past relationships.

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