The Impostor Sea: A Report from the Archives
During the past academic year, as a Rome Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Rome, I began writing a second book, tentatively entitled The Impostor Sea. Working with Arabic, Latin, and Romance sources, I have gathered hundreds of cases of smugglers, grifters, counterfeiters, dissemblers, bandits, and other scofflaws that operated in the Mediterranean between Spain, Italy, and North Africa. These were not rare or marginal figures. At the end of the thirteenth century, at the port of Barcelona, fines collected from smugglers amounted to three times the taxes paid by ordinary merchants. The Mediterranean was a sea of hucksters.
The dangers of dissembling could touch anyone. All who traveled on the Mediterranean were at risk of becoming impostors. This was the case for two Christians, who thought they were joining a legitimate trading mission to Tunis in 1285, only to find themselves cuffed and sold as captives of war to Christian ransomers. I highlight this example because the fraud was concatenated, like the chains of their shackles. Neither the trading mission nor the captivity was real. Merely sailing into the sea turned these men into unwitting dissemblers.
To begin with a sea filled with impostors demands abandoning any approach that would treat religious categories as stable and coherent. Nevertheless, all that is solid does not melt into air. A sea of impostors presumes that religious categories were both flexible and legible. To lie, one has to know the truth. And indeed, as I argue in this book, novel efforts to define and regulate illicit commercial activity played a central role in defining and stabilizing the boundaries between Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
Let me give you an example, drawn from my research in the Secret Archive of the Vatican. Faced with the problem of Christians smuggling goods to North Africa despite the Church’s prohibition on trade with Muslims, the thirteenth-century popes offered a new solution. They invited smugglers to come to Rome, confess their crimes, pay a fine, and receive absolution. What they offered was a bureaucratic version of a penitential procession. After giving a confession, a repentant smuggler proceeded through a series of offices before receiving a certificate of absolution. It is this paper trail that survives in the archive.
These confessions give a sense of the kinds of people involved in smuggling. Families came forward together to plead forgiveness and clerics can be found among the penitent. Sometimes the goods they smuggled were sumptuous, like saffron and gold, but more often, they were unremarkable, like cured meat. Overall, the picture that emerges of these outlaws is rather quotidian. Medieval smugglers were mostly mundane workaday types.
In general, the matter of absolution for smuggling has been viewed as evidence of strategic pragmatism on the part of smugglers and venality on the part of the medieval papacy. Both explanations, however, fall short. Many penitents said they were moved by their conscience. Many of these confessions were anonymous or secret, calling into question their strategic value. Sincere or not, all penitents had to travel to Rome, where they were instructed about right behavior and the moral and physical dangers of trade. The absolution did not excuse or contradict but rather confirmed that interactions between Christians and Muslims were spiritually and materially dangerous. In this bureaucratic purgatory, the boundary between Christians and Muslims was drawn.
In winding lines where they idled like tourists queued at the Vatican Museum, the repentant merchants, whose feet and backs ached, whose clothes were soaked through with sweat, whose hotel bills were accumulating, and whose pockets were perhaps being picked had plenty of time to think about the choices they had made. It was not on paper or from the pulpit but in those lines that the medieval papacy succeeded in convincing Christians not to trade with Muslims.