One of the exciting things about history is that new discoveries and research have the potential to transform our notions of the past. This is one of the richest mysteries of the field—finding out new information that challenges old ideas and long-held wisdom.
For example, many would be surprised to find that medieval Islamic societies in Spain and North Africa were familiar with, and even traded with, people in Britain. Yet this is indeed the case, as demonstrated by archaeological evidence and research from historian Dr. Caitlin Green.
Medieval Britain and the Mediterranean
Green's research centers around about ten Islamic gold dinar coins that have been discovered in Great Britain, primarily in the southern part of England. The coins date to the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries, prior to Spain's expulsion of the Moors. At this time, the Iberian Peninsula was ruled by Muslims, whose influence extended across the Mediterranean (including North Africa).
By Wikipedia Loves Art participant "artifacts" [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Finding even a single gold dinar on British soil is a bit illuminating, although this could perhaps be dismissed as an anomaly. Ten of these gold coins may not seem like a lot, but because of their high value (and the centuries that have passed since they were in use), even this modest distribution of dinars is in all likelihood actually indicative of a far more widespread circulation of these coins in the region. This is corroborated by documentary evidence from medieval England that point toward the presence of these gold dinar coins at the time, making it far less likely these artifacts were simply lost by collectors in modern times.
This research suggests that a fair amount of commerce was conducted between English merchants and Spain during the medieval period. Green cites another historian, Marion Archibald, who makes the case that the highest level of such commercial activity—and the Islamic coins that facilitated it—took place further back than the 11th century.
Islamic Scholars and the Heptarchy
In related research, Green provides support for the notion that trade and contact with the Islamic world stretches further back in medieval history than the evidence of coins might show.
An Islamic author from the late-9th century, Harun ibn Yahya, describes the "seven kings" of Britain, which corresponds to the existing historiography (but at an even earlier date). This is significant not only in providing an earlier time frame for the seven kingdoms ("heptarchy") but also for the man's apparent familiarity with Britain. Indeed, there are Arabic maps of the British isles that date to later in the medieval period, as well.
All of this research—by Dr. Green and others—reveals interesting details about the history of Britain, as well as uncovering its trade and contact with the medieval Mediterranean world.
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