Global Middle Ages seminar series – 8 May
François-Xavier Fauvelle | National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), Toulouse, France
“Broker states, ecological thresholds, and articulated cities: comparative perspectives on the African Middle Ages”
It has long been known that several regions of Africa (e.g. the Sahara, the Nile corridor, the Rift escarpment in the Horn, the coastal and inland plains in East Africa) were crisscrossed by commercial routes during the Middle Ages. Indeed, the very existence of these routes — as well as the people, ideas, representations, practices and goods they conveyed — evidences the interconnectedness of these regions with the rest of the medieval oecumene. Or, to put it differently: we must count these regions of Africa among the interconnected provinces of a global medieval world. Despite the written and archaeological evidence of their existence, however, these routes remain elusive in material and theoretical terms. This paper adopts a comparative approach focussed mostly on north-western Africa and Ethiopia with the aim of presenting a typology of the places related to long-distance routes. Observing that the termini of many such routes — and the capital cities of medieval African polities — were situated on ecological thresholds, the paper further argues that such places were deliberately established in counterintuitive environments so that they might function as points of intersection between different commercial catchments. Such intentionality may in turn explain aspects of their spatial organization; and it may also explain why they were sometimes forgotten once this function had ceased.
François-Xavier Fauvelle is a historian and archaeologist of Africa, and Senior Researcher at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Toulouse, France. He was recently appointed Professor at the Collège de France to the first chair ever devoted to African history in this institution. He has coordinated a number of historical and archaeological research projects in Ethiopia, and for the past ten years he has been leading the French-Moroccan program of excavations at the Islamic medieval city of Sijilmâsa. He is the author or editor of more than 15 books. His book The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages, originally published in French and awarded the most prestigious French prizes for academic history books, has been released in English by Princeton University Press in December 2018.
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