I am not sure anymore when, where and how exactly I realised that horses are “good to think with” but early on Donna Landry’s fabulous book Noble Brutes. How Eastern Horses Transformed English Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009) certainly helped consolidate that dawning realisation. Rather than seeing horses as bit players in bigger histories – economic, military, diplomatic, art, archaeology, even environmental history – Landry puts horses at the centre and brings different disciplines together to write larger cultural and intellectual histories through horses. Noble Brutes focuses on changing British horse cultures in the eighteenth century and the ways that riding became a place to explore national identity as well as ideas of liberty, control and adventure.
The study of equine cultures in medieval South Asia and the Indian Ocean world is, by comparison, in its infancy but there is no doubt that, as much as in modern Europe, horses often became vehicles for bigger ideas. I have published two articles on very different aspects of this question, and have plans to develop a larger project.
A Cultural History of the Sea – Medieval
No, not John Mack’s The Sea: A Cultural History but a new project from Bloomsbury Academic that will bring watery worlds into its Cultural Histories Series. The series produces multi-volume sets that offer comprehensive coverage of the social and cultural construction of a specific subject across six historical periods, from Antiquity to the Modern Age. Thanks to Margaret Cohen of Stanford University I join an impressive stable of scholars – Marie-Claire Beaulieu of Tufts University (Antiquity), Steve Mentz of St. John’s College NY (Early Modern), Jonathan Lamb of Vanderbilt University (Age of Enlightenment), Margaret Cohen (Age of Empire) and Franziska Torma of the Technical University Munich (The Global Age).
With chapters examining Knowledges, Practices, Networks, Conflicts, Islands and Shores, Travelers, Visualization and Representation, and Other Worlds, the Medieval volume will be challenging to edit but, I hope, ground breaking in its global outlook. As they say, the proof of this pudding will be in its eating – publication is scheduled for Fall 2020.
Indian Ocean Archives – The Kollam Plates
In the Indian Ocean a great deal of important work must first be empirical – revising nineteenth century work and, above all, working new sources – before it can move on to other things. Our waters lay far from Renaissance gazes and well beyond the circuits of the Grand Tour. Easy as it is to criticise amateurs and antiquarians, they laid rich foundations for the modern ‘scientific’ scholarship of the Mediterranean. Indian Oceanists, and particularly those work on the period before 1500, are still making their archive. The ‘India Book’ material from the Cairo Genizah is one important new addition but still very much in its infancy in terms of publication and further synthesis. The Kollam plates represent a better example of the challenges we face.
The plates in question are copper plates, often known as the Sthanu Ravi plates after the ninth century ruler of Kerala under whose aegis this grant was made, and they record grants of land and trade privileges to an Eastern Christian church and two trade associations at the port of Kollam in south India in 849 CE. What makes the Kollam plates stand out from the mass of surviving medieval Indian copper plate grants is, of course, their association with West Asian trade networks but above all their linguistic complexity. Their four scripts represent three distinct languages – Tamil, Arabic, and Middle Persian, and through this, the complex ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity of Indian Ocean trade in the ninth century. Hindus, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews are all present in this document.
Mentioned passingly in Portuguese sources, its Tamil portions partially edited and translated for the first time in the mid-nineteenth century, the Arabic and Middle Persian portions published separately, the Kollam plates had never previously been studied holistically. Two workshops funded by an AHRC International Research Network allowed me to gather specialists internationally in order to re-edit and re-translate all the texts on the document and to begin to situate this complex grant in the wider Indian Ocean world of the ninth century.
The results of this collaborative, multi-disciplinary project are being published with Primus Books in New Delhi as The Kollam Plates in the Ninth Century Indian Ocean (An experiment in Large Micro-History) but for the moment the project website provides more details.