The Center for Medieval Studies was thrilled to (virtually) host Associate Professor Hussein Fancy from the University of Michigan’s Department of History last week. Professor Fancy (virtually) lectured on exciting material based on archival research at the Vatican and in Spain, which builds on his exploration of politics and religion in his previous book, “The Mercenary Mediterranean: Sovereignty, Religion, and Violence in the Medieval Crown of Aragon,” and will be published in his next book project, on “The Impostor Sea.” Professor Fancy’s lecture complicated the opposition between the growth of Mediterranean trade and religion standard in most accounts of the later middle ages, he argued instead that religious authorities expressed themselves through the regulation of trade.

Because of religious restrictions, both Muslim and Christian, on trade with those of different faiths, trade was often carried out by religious “impostors.” Far from neatly demonstrating the corrosive impact of trade on faith however, this was the impetus for the exertion of religious authority. Papal authorities offered absolution to impostors and smugglers, and straying merchants eagerly seized the chance to restore their good standing with God. In Tunis, the expansion of trade entrenched religious divide, as secular authorities cracked down on religious impostors who attempted to cross the boundary between the Muslim city and the Christian trade colony within it. And in Barcelona, secular authorities assumed that the traders they interacted with were scammers and impostors, and used that assumption to exert their own control by licensing their favorites to deal in illicit trade.

Professor Fancy concluded his lecture with a Q&A session with the Fordham community. He took the opportunity to caution against overestimating our ability to get into the headspace of the subjects of our written sources. For Professor Fancy, what is most important is always what our sources say, not our assumptions about the motivations behind them. Many of those who attended the lecture are in Professor Nicholas Paul’s graduate seminar, “Medieval Political Cultures”, which investigates just such issues of source criticism in relation to the contemporary practice of cultural history, making Professor Fancy’s lecture particularly timely.