- King John's Delegation to the Almohad Court (1212): Medieval Interreligious Interactions and Modern Historiography by Ilan Shoval
When one thinks of King John of England, the man who lost the vast Angevin Empire to Philippe II Auguste of France and sealed the end of regnal supremacy via Magna Carta, one generally does not consider him an ally of Saracens and an active player in Iberian politics. Yet such a possibility is implied by an episode in the Chronica majora by the medieval chronicler Matthew Paris, who states that John sent a delegation to the Almohad Caliph, al-Nāṣir, in 1212 in order to form a political alliance. It is an isolated and controversial narrative thread and one that many historians have dismissed over the previous two centuries for myriad reasons, but Ilan Shoval believes it should not be discounted wholesale and, indeed, reveals through his book the political cunning and diplomatic finesse of the oft-reviled English [End Page 255] king. Through his forensic analysis of Paris's account, Shoval adopts a new perspective on Almohad–Angevin relations, including how John intended to use an Almohad victory in Iberia to cement his grand alliance against France in the years prior to the battle of Bouvines.
What Shoval's study lacks in straightforward organization it makes up for in innovation and interpretation. The historian begins with a brief history of the Chronica majora followed by an English translation of the Almohad story (a transcription of the Latin version is available in an appendix). He then immediately begins analysing the historical problems with the passage, forgetting that most of his audience does not yet have sufficient contextual knowledge to understand most of the issues he addresses. That being said, Shoval categorically responds to a plethora of historiographical problems here, leaving little doubt in the mind of this reader that previous historians have failed to comprehend the true importance of John's probable delegation to the Almohad court.
It is with mild frustration, therefore, that much of the remaining two-thirds of the book feels relatively unimportant compared to the implications of the first chapter. The long second chapter, ostensibly focused on the interreligious and theological aspects of the study, in reality is more of a series of biographies of the diplomats, especially Robert of London, who was partially villainized by Matthew Paris but also purportedly the chronicler's source for the story. The chapter ends with a needlessly long discussion of Islamic interpretations of Pauline Christianity and al-Nāṣir's possible Christian upbringing prompted by a single sentence from Matthew Paris's account. What the chapter does not include is any in-depth discussion of religious issues or contemporary Christian or Islamic theology.
The remaining three chapters all focus primarily on Anglo-Iberian politics. Chapter 3 provides a rather thorough history of English relations with Navarre and the other Christian kingdoms in Iberia, generally in relation to John's duchies of Aquitaine and Gascony. Discussion of the Almohad embassy appears briefly in the middle of this chapter, but the focus is primarily on the battle of Las Navas in July 1212, which saw the end of Almohad power in Iberia and ended any relationship the Almohad had formed with the English. The short fourth chapter provides further context by discussing the feudal relationship between the Angevins and the kings of France. Meanwhile, the equally short final chapter explores the historiography surrounding John and reveals how Shoval's reinterpretation of the Almohad-Angevin relationship lends further evidence to the argument that John should be considered a skilled diplomat and politician.
Organizationally, this book feels backwards. The five chapters, bookended by an introduction and epilogue, are structured in a way that undoubtedly helped the author in his research but labours the reader. Most of the historical context should have been placed before the translation and analysis of [End Page 256] Paris's account to provide the reader with the necessary...