African Studies Medieval Europe and Africa
Allen Fromherz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0172


Studies of the relationship between Western North Africa (the Maghreb) and Europe have been marked by two paradoxes. First, despite geographic proximity, economic exchange, and even periods of political unity, across both the Straits of Sicily and the Straits of Gibraltar, modern and medieval scholars often conceive of North Africa and Europe in separate terms. Second, studies of the Maghreb and Western Europe are lopsided. There are far more studies of the European side than of the Maghrebi side, despite the existence of plentiful sources for both regions. European studies of the Maghreb are often tainted by their association with colonial goals of conquest and by claims of the European characteristics of the Berbers (the “native peoples” of North Africa encountered by the Arab conquerors but converted to Islam). Thus emerges a complex picture of relations, memories, symbols, and approaches as interactions between two dominant faiths, Christianity and Islam, must be juxtaposed with two dominant ethnic and linguistic groups (Berbers and Arabs) within Islam that have simultaneously divided and united the distinctive culture of the Maghreb and Europe.

General Overviews

Although not synthesized into a single volume, the relationship between the Maghreb (Western North Africa) and Europe in the medieval period has been examined as a vital part of Christian-Muslim relations in the medieval Mediterranean. Beginning with Pirenne 2001, which argues, from the 1930s, that the Arab conquests split the Mediterranean between north and south, a debate has emerged among scholars about the extent of political, intellectual, and religious exchange between the Maghreb and Europe since the rise of Islam. Many books view the relationship between south and north from the European perspective. Tolan 2009 examines the idea of the Saracen in European imagination, and Catlos 2014 focuses on Muslims, many from North Africa, in Europe. Although some works, such as Bulliet 2004, make a case for “Islamo-Christian Civilization,” others such as Planhol 2000 reject the notion that Islamic culture ever rejected naval or sea transport. There are several reasons for a reluctant view of the Western Mediterranean as a cultural sphere. For instance, Laroui 1976, a history of the Maghreb, distances itself deliberately from European colonialist histories that attempt to use medieval history to lay claim to North African lands. Fierro 2010 and Kennedy 1996 show the intimate contacts between North Africa and Iberia, respectively. The great 14th century historical work Ibn Khaldun 1967 focuses on North Africa but also provides an overview of political and social forces on both sides of the straits of Gibraltar. See also the separate Oxford Bibliographies article on North Africa from 600 to 1800.

  • Bulliet, Richard. The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

    Bulliet’s argument is often the starting point for discussions of Muslim-Christian relations in the Mediterranean as a whole.

  • Catlos, Brian. Muslims of Medieval Latin Christendom: c. 1050–1614. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

    This is an excellent examination of Muslims (often North African Berbers) under Christian rule.

  • Fierro, Maribel, ed. The New Cambridge History of Islam. Vol. 2, The Western Islamic World: Eleventh to Eighteenth Centuries. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    This text, a collection of independently written chapters, is meant to examine the Maghreb and its political history in a comprehensive manner.

  • Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah. 2d ed. 3 vols. Translated by F. Rosenthal. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967.

    Ibn Khaldun’s encyclopedic “introduction to history” refers to the culture of both Al-Andalus and the Maghreb.

  • Kennedy, Hugh. Muslim Spain and Portugal: A Political history of Al-Andalus. London and New York: Longman, 1996.

    A standard overview of the political history of Al-Andalus, with reference to North African dynasties. This is a good chronological reference.

  • Laroui, Abdullah. L’historie du Maghreb. Paris: Librarie Francois Maspero, 1976.

    Laroui’s re-examination of Maghrebi history was meant as a reaction to standard French, colonial perspectives.

  • Pirenne, Henri. Mohammed and Charlemagne. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2001.

    This controversial book set off a debate that still continues over the role of Islam in the Mediterranean and the amount of disruption it caused or did not cause to the notion of a common Mediterranean culture.

  • Planhol, Xavier de. L’Islam et la mer: La mosquée et le matelot. Paris: Perrin, 2000.

    Muslims did not orient North Africa only to the Sahara, they also engaged in extensive naval trade in the Mediterranean.

  • Tolan, John. Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

    This is an important overview of the evolution of European views of the “Saracen.”

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