“I think by learning more about medieval people and their migration experiences, we can move one step closer to a sense of the shared humanity between medieval and modern people.”
Every day, it seems, the news is filled with images of suffering refugees trying to cross national borders by land and sea. They seek new lives, safer homes, and more profitable conditions for themselves and their loved ones, but often meet with uncountable obstacles and even death on their journeys. Even when migrants and refugees successfully make it across national borders, they may continue to face difficulties related to assimilation, identity, and the sense of loss and longing for the homeland they left behind. It can be easy to believe that all of this is a particularly modern phenomenon, but history shows that people have been seeking new lives in foreign lands for millennia—and often for remarkably similar reasons to today’s migrants.
Medieval history can illuminate some of the experiences of earlier migrants, who were especially common in the wider Mediterranean Sea region. As I was writing this book, I was struck by how, at root, these motivations for migration share so much with those of people crossing national borders today: they want safety, to live with family, profitable careers, or a chance to start a new life abroad after disaster at home. While many of these medieval migrants’ stories sound familiar—for example, families and groups seeking safety after regime change, a more lucrative job abroad, or life among people with whom they share a faith—not all of the details of medieval migration patterns were the same as modern ones. In particular, there was not the same prevalence of northward migration from Africa to Europe: medieval migrants are found crossing the Mediterranean in all directions, northward, southward, eastward, and westward, depending on their circumstances.
In this book I examine some notable examples of medieval people who found themselves needing or wanting to migrate, for example:
- Christian monks and clerics from Syria and Africa who fled after their lands were conquered by Muslim forces
- an anonymous young Muslim woman seeking to leave an oppressive situation in Christian Sicily by means of a marriage alliance
- the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who sought refuge in Islamic Egypt after his city in Spain was conquered by rulers hostile to religious minorities
- merchants, artisans, and intellectuals from many different cultures who moved to take advantage of better conditions for their careers
In several short chapters, I follow these and other stories of Christians, Jews, and Muslims who made the difficult decision to leave their homelands and the societies they had known since birth. Some of their migrations were prompted by violence, conquest, and warfare that led them to seek safety abroad. Others were spurred by the prospect of a profitable change of venue for their professional skills or a useful marriage abroad. But in all these cases, I think by learning more about medieval people and their migration experiences, we can move one step closer to a sense of the shared humanity between medieval and modern people.
By Sarah Davis-Secord