The Birth of the Middle East: Cultural Developments and Misperceptions between the European and Islamic Worlds of the 14th Century

Hey everyone! My name is Jeff Rohde and I am originally from just outside of  Baltimore, Maryland. I am in love with everything about William and Mary, and I am so excited to have the opportunity to conduct research here during the summer. I have met so many amazing people, had some fantastic (even worldly) experiences, and taken some mind-blowing classes! My project this summer is actually a further investigation of a discussion that was held in my class devoted to Dante Alighieri’s Commedia. Because my project title is a bit of a mouthful, I will try to break down what it is I hope to discover this summer here!

During our analysis of Dante’s Inferno, we discussed the reasons and implications of Dante placing Mohammed in Hell. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, was found with other souls damned for being “Sowers of Discord.” It is interesting to find him here since, up to this point in the work, we had only encountered pagan/pre-christian figures or blatantly evil sinners in Dante’s Hell. Why had Dante consciously placed Mohammed in Hell amongst such rotten souls? Islam is a religion relatively similar to Christianity, and there are even tenets of Islam that recognize and respect Christianity as another theology. Why then did Dante feel it necessary to condemn Mohammed in one of the lowest circles of Hell?

Through reading Edward Said’s Orientalism, we learned that during the early Renaissance period, academics of the time had been commenting on the cultural differences inherent in the Arab and European regions of Europe and Asia. Literature analyzing the religion, social customs, gender roles, etc. that existed moreso in the Middle East than in Christian Europe began to separate the European and Arabic peoples of the area. Over time, the general population who may not have fully understood the nature of Islamic and Arabic culture began to take the differences and abstractions that were found in European academic literature as the ‘true’ nature of  Arabic people. This distorted view of the Arabic culture eventually led to the labeling of the region as the Middle East – a title that grouped the people of this region as distinctly non-European.

This summer, I will investigate the academic articles that  were actually published and circulated during the 14h century in order to see how and on what basis the ‘Middle East’ was characterized as different from Europe. I will also read more works focused on the study of the relationship between Europe and the Middle East in order to glean a well rounded perspective on the political, economic, social and cultural differences that may have perpetuated the divide between these two peoples. Through my research, I hope to learn if, and how, misperceptions about the Middle East were established, and how they have transcended into modern society.

Well, thank you all for bearing with me, and I hope that you tag along with me as I embark on this journey. I am sincerely looking forward to having a revealing summer, and one that will help me better understand the relationship between the East and the West. Get ready SWEM, we’re about to get really close!!



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