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A28 Commerce in Sicily

Transcultural Commerce and its Perception in Contemporary Sources in Sicily during the Fourteenth Century

Koordination: Stefan Weinfurter, Nikolas Jaspert


Project A28 underlines the importance of Mediterranean commerce and trade relations in establishing and maintaining a transcultural or as Abby Lughod has called it: a "worldwide system of production and exchange". The island of Sicily and its seaports Messina, Syracuse, and Palermo were important intermediaries for the circulation of popular and precious goods between occident and orient. The project analyses Sicily's role within larger medieval trading networks that connected the island with the Italian continent, Northern Africa, the Levant and Asia. The chronological framework of this study extends from the beginning of Angevin rule in Southern Italy in the 1260s to the arrival of the Black Death in Messina in 1347. This period of change and transition provides an interesting case study with regard to the interdependency of the political rule, the economic development and the commercial networks of a medieval island. The project focuses on the distribution of Eastern goods in Sicily, the perception of these commodities and the influence of the historical conditions and the changing political rule on the island's patterns of connectivity.
Particular emphasis is placed on the dynamics between the domestic market, internal and long-distance trade and their influence on the price of foreign products and the commercial exchange between hinterland areas and the urban centres as well as Sicily's role as a transhipment centre for raw material and luxurious products from the East. Data from a wide variety of sources such as merchants' manuals, cookbooks, travel accounts, chronicles, chancery records and mercantile contracts was collected, in order to gain a deeper understanding of how medieval merchants perceived and evaluated the quality of goods that were trade in Sicily. These sources include occasional references that reflect to a certain degree the awareness of Christian merchants of the cultural differences between Christian and Muslim buyers and indicate particular business conditions for the trade with non-Christian merchants.
The analysis of political and economic interrelations sheds new light on the link between commerce and political authorities. Despite major changes in political structures, the patterns of communication established under one set of rulers could be carried over into the next, such as the political involvement of Sicily in Northern Africa. While some networks persisted, political ruptures caused mainly by the Sicilian Vespers profoundly changed some commercial networks in which the island's trade was engaged. The Aragonese rulers, in particular, were able to exploit their trading networks in multiple directions. Charles of Anjou as well as the Aragonese kings aspired to become a dominating power in the Mediterranean and hence, used Sicily as a stepping stone or a vehicle in this process.

Major project outcomes:

In October 2014, project A28 organised an international workshop on "New Perspectives on the Research of Medieval Sicily - Prospects and Challenges" in order to discuss current research trends and develop new research questions. The workshop aimed at providing a platform of communication for experienced as well as early career researchers. Workshop topics included Sicily as transcultural contact zone, archives and sources, foreign rule and civic autonomy and economic perspectives on medieval Sicily.

Download the workshop programme here.

The international conference organized by Project A28 in cooperation with the University Project “Transcultural Studies” was held from the 26th to the 27th of November at Hochschule für Jüdische Studien in Heidelberg and brought together renowned scholars from different disciplines such as Islamic Studies, Byzantine Studies, Jewish Studies, Medieval History and Art History. Recent scholarship on the medieval Mediterranean has underlined the importance of Sicily as a prime example to study processes of transcultural exchange and entanglement. The island in the center of the Mediterranean basin is considered a paradigmatic case for a medieval transcultural society, which received and absorbed elements of different traditions in terms of language, art, administration and also economy. The dynamics of these processes of interaction lie at the core of the conference “Urban Dynamics and Transcultural Communication in Medieval Sicily”. The contributions focused on urban centers of Medieval Sicily as hubs in regional, trans-regional, and in wider Mediterranean networks.

Download the conference programme here.

Download the conference report here.

Conference participants in front of the Hexenturm (Department of History, Heidelberg)

The papers delivered at this conference will be published in a volume of proceedings in the "Mittelmeerstudien" series:


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