Woodrow Wilson News & Publications
WW NEWSLETTER EXTRA: Spring 2011 - THE NEWCOMBE FELLOWS: 1981-2011
Troubling Unspoken Assumptions:
Hussein Fancy CN ’06 Explores Unexpected Alliances
In one of the great medieval empires, Muslims and Christians fought side by side under the same banners—but to assume that these alliances evinced multicultural brotherhood, argues Hussein Fancy CN ’06, says more about modern-day biases than about life in the Middle Ages.
Mercenary Logic, Dr. Fancy’s first book, looks at both Christian and Muslim soldiers fighting in armies of the opposite faith, an outgrowth of work he did for his dissertation as a Newcombe Fellow. Now assistant professor of history at the University of Michigan, Dr. Fancy was named a Carnegie Scholar in 2009, an award that has allowed him to travel and build on the original project.
Based on two years of research in France, Spain, and North Africa involving Arabic, Latin, and Romance sources, “this book examines the virtually unknown history of thousands of Muslim soldiers who served the Christian kings of the Crown of Aragon—perhaps the greatest Mediterranean empire in the later Middle Ages,” Dr. Fancy explains. “These soldiers appear everywhere, from the royal court as the king's personal protectors, his entertainment, and even his ambassadors, to the front line of far-flung battles across the empire, from Spain and North Africa to Sicily.”
Through Mercenary Logic, Dr. Fancy hopes to convey that these surprising alliances between Muslims and Christians were not about breaking down boundaries . “[The phenomenon] was grounded in changing ideas of legal sovereignty, changing moral and theological ideas that reinforced religious difference,” he says. “Interaction, in short, was a prelude to exclusion.”
Indeed, Dr. Fancy argues, these alliances do not reflect a world of either religious tolerance or intolerance, no matter how much historians and scholars want it to. “History should never serve the demands of the present for explanations that satisfy our own world views,” he says. “At its best, as both a political and ethical enterprise, it should reveal to us—and trouble—our own unspoken assumptions.
“If medieval history has so often been the foundation for self-confident claims about what makes us modern, then it also holds the potential, I would argue, to undo those very same self-certainties.”
The research for Mercenary Logic has also yielded a related project, tentatively entitled The Criminal Mediterranean. In this second book, Dr. Fancy will consider criminal groups and networks moving between areas of Christian or Muslim dominion around the Mediterranean. “ ‘[I]ntermediaries’ and ‘boundary-crossers’ were not always advocates of liberal and democratic progress, but often conservative and entrenched figures of the status quo,” he says.
Yet another line of inquiry emerging from Dr. Fancy’s dissertation has led to an article called “The Last Almohad,” which describes the remarkable career of the last Caliph of Almohad, who sought refuge in the Crown of Aragon after the collapse of his empire in 1248. “Broadly, this project represents what interests me most about the study of North Africa and Spain,” Dr. Fancy notes. “By using Arabic, Latin, and Romance materials simultaneously, one quickly realizes that although the Mediterranean separated these regions, their histories were deeply intertwined. Studying one to the exclusion of the other is a bit like trying to play baseball without a bat.”
Dr. Fancy credits his Newcombe Fellowship with providing him the time and concentration it took to complete the first phase of this fruitful work at a moment when many dissertation writers are pulled in different directions through pieced-together employment and other commitments. At the time, he says, “the transformation from a graduate student to an assistant professor seemed like something dark and alchemical. The Newcombe Fellowship was a gift of time and spiritual encouragement.”
He adds, “Since that time, I've been drawn more seriously into the study of religion but also the ethical responsibilities of studying and writing about history. The dissertation that I produced in that year has opened doors for me that I didn't even know existed.”