How did people protest before there were printed publications and social media? What were the ways they sought to influence their leaders? How could the citizens of 11th century Baghdad be compared to the societies of today in how they expressed their discontent?
Henry Stratakis-Allen ’23, a double major in math and medieval and renaissance studies at William & Mary, is working to find those answers and more.
His interest in exploring riots and demonstrations started when he read an Arabic source stating: “The masses said: this is a false Islam,” when discussing the events that led to a violent riot in Baghdad. He got hooked on the idea of what writers meant when they wrote about “the people.”
“I am studying what the author could have meant,” Stratakis-Allen said. “Who were the masses? How did they communicate with the government? Was there ‘public opinion’ or ‘a public’ in medieval Baghdad? These questions are very complicated in the context of a pre-modern society lacking mass-media or any representative institutions.”
Scouring sources online in the original Arabic, Stratakis-Allen looked for references to the people and clues to their everyday activities and concerns. Searching the bibliographies of secondary sources led him to the primary sources of six chronicles, or histories, and a diary that have been his main reference material.
His fluency in Arabic is tested most by rare vocabulary and idioms, according to Stratakis-Allen.
“My research is moving toward the conclusion that the people referred to as al-aewam — the common people — contributed substantively to ongoing dialogues between clerical figures and the state,” Stratakis-Allen said. “In order to present this conclusion in a comprehensible way, I have needed to study the social environment of Baghdad during the time.”
He concluded that several social groups each played very different roles in dialogue formation, although each had access to expression in the form of mass mobilization, public demonstration such as slogan chanting and violence when attempting to communicate ideological messages. These groups were the Muslim clerics, the merchants and the ‘common people.’
Identifying who exactly the so-called common people were has been less clear. Stratakis-Allen has found useful information about where they lived, but where they worked and their economic status have proved more elusive.
Clues about issues that provoked strong reactions from them included two separate sources mentioning “they took out their swords” when describing the same event.
In another instance, a foreign soldier working with a sultan’s daughter gets into an argument with a fruit vendor in the street and kills him by hitting him in the head with a plate from a set of scales. The people asked the caliph — religious leader — to do something about it, and one step was to expel foreign soldiers from his palace.
“That was one of the big passages to identify them,” Stratakis-Allen said. “They identified with the fruit vendor and viewed that soldier’s behavior as threatening to them. There also may be ethnic issues at play; the murderer wasn’t Arab and the people and the caliph were.”
The diary mentions a similar scenario in which in a mosque, a foreign soldier tries to take a woman. People pushed him outside, a battle ensued and a person was killed.
Casual diary mentions of participation in big events, for example attending a meeting that would be described in a chronicle 200 years later as significant, were the most striking things he discovered, according to Stratakis-Allen.
“For a period like this, it’s almost shocking to read them talking about their daily activities in such a sort of nonchalant way,” he said. “That was really interesting. And to see reflections of the really broad issues in those moments in that diary, that was really cool, I thought.”
Stratakis-Allen’s research will be used in his senior honors thesis, but it may also be of broader interest to scholarly journals because new ground is being broken by his project, according to a W&M professor.
“In his research, Henry is exploring such important questions as who al-aewam really were, what they were driven by, and what they were hoping to achieve — questions that have yet to be answered in the scholarly literature,” said Ayfer Karakaya-Stump, associate professor of history and affiliated faculty in medieval and renaissance studies.
“For his thesis, he is not only closely reading relevant primary sources in their original Arabic (mostly chronicles), but also engaging creatively with secondary literature and the concept of the ‘public sphere’ coined by Jürgen Habermas. By the time it is completed, I have no doubt that Henry’s honors thesis will produce an article that is publishable in a scholarly journal.”
Findings include a sense of dissatisfaction between the people and the caliph’s leadership, where citizens were protesting a perceived decline and possibly new problems in the society. It’s important that they lacked any kind of representative institution, according to Stratakis-Allen.
“The big conclusion will be that this was an unambiguously defined social group that contributed substantially to these broader dialogues,” he said. “I think that’s important because a lot of the scholarship — when they talk about dialogue formation or the construction or direction of ideas in the city and in the civilization — doesn’t ever consider that this social group is contributing in a very significant way, or at least in some way, to the formation of those dialogues.”
Jennifer L. Williams, Communications Specialist