- Edging Toward Iberia by Jean Dangler
The title of Jean Dangler's book indicates that this is no traditional study of medieval Iberia but, rather, a reflection on process and progress. In this bold and brilliant work, medieval Iberia – or, as Dangler prefers, non-modern Iberia – is subject to a critical overhaul, one that acknowledges its fluidity and heterogeneity, and marks scholarly developments in this direction, but demonstrates that scholars continue to adopt categories, labels, and ideas, like "the reconquest" or "medieval Spain," that threaten to ossify some of the most diverse and complex features of early Iberia. "Edging toward Iberia" is duly explained as "a continual process of assessing the terms and models that guide not only our research but also our critical relationship to the past." The reader is, unsurprisingly, rarely on firm ground in the best possible way. [End Page 197]
The book is scrupulously organized in three parts: an examination of the fundamental critical problems and a proposed solution using the network theory of Manuel Castells and the world systems analysis (WSA) of Immanuel Wallerstein, the application of the solution to the familiar topics of trade, travel, and socio-economic conditions, and the application of the methodology to new topics related to politics, identity, and culture. Within each part, there are two or three separate chapters allowing both breadth of vision and detailed application of theory to specific historical, literary, and socio-cultural examples. Identifying a critical framework with which to explore and articulate heterogeneity and fluidity requires no small amount of scholarly rigour, as Dangler demonstrates. The first part, concerning fundamental problems, identifies periodization and geography as key concerns that tend to characterize non-modern Iberia as a bordered, static space when it was closer to "a network of interrelated attachments between varying individuals and groups." Dangler proposes that edging towards Iberia is "edging toward Africa and the Middle East at the same time" and that network theory and WSA invite more expansive ways to imagine Iberian history and space. Dangler's use of network theory and WSA is rooted in the ability of these constructs to explore the nature of systems and networks, especially through their identification of central and peripheral nodes in a system, the question of power, and vertical and horizontal network organization. Dangler acknowledges that these theories are associated with modern technology and with a global, capitalist world system and that Castells is himself skeptical about wholesale efforts to apply his ideas to non-modern eras. He justifies their relevance insofar as the principles they interrogate, such as connection and interaction, are not inherently modern and offer a means of analysing the complexity of the Iberian past more acutely, via the abandonment of simple, inert binaries in favour of an examination of relationships in culture and history as "always shifting and in flux."
Dangler's application of the methodology in the second part is a compelling insight into the Islamicate trade network and the role of al-Andalus within it as well as the nature of travel and intercultural exchange. Dangler's review of feudalism, "slavery," and poverty in the context of network theory and WSA produces valuable discussion of the mutability and variety inherent in these seemingly uniform topics. In the third part, Dangler deftly illustrates that socio-political change was diverse and interactive and makes a convincing case for the fluid, interdependent political network of which al-Andalus was a part. Applying the tenets of network theory and WSA to the field of group identity and culture also strengthens the case for shifting reliance away from religion, ethnicity, and national affiliation as constituents of identity. Culture and identity are instead represented as "a system of continuities and deviations."
Dangler's book is a challenging and important study that, in edging towards Iberia, takes us to some necessarily uncomfortable conclusions about the relevance and scope of methods and models that have hitherto dominated [End Page 198] scholarship. In recognizing al-Andalus, Iberia, and the Maghreb as part of the same system, and in using new methodologies to identify and articulate connections, it...