The Dan David Prize, Like a MacArthur for Historians, Goes to CUNY Professor

March 8, 2022

Professor Kristina L. Richardson received the prize, which comes with $300,000 and few strings, for her revelations about the Roma in her recent book.

Kristina L. Richardson
Kristina L. Richardson (courtesy of Richardson)

By Bonnie Eissner

In late January, Professor Kristina L. Richardson (GC/Queens, History, Middle Eastern Studies) received surprising news: She had won the Dan David Prize for the revelations in her new book, Roma in the Medieval Islamic World. The prize, a MacArthur-style “genius grant” for early and midcareer historians, comes with $300,000 and few strings.

“I just sat looking out the window for hours,” she says. “It took me a full day to just think about what that amount could do. I have more ideas now, but it blew me out of the water. I lost a whole day of working.”

As the title implies, Roma in the Medieval Islamic World delves into the culture and experiences of the people we now call Roma, but who, in the Middle Ages, were known as strangers or foreigners. Living as beggars and street performers, they were considered illiterate. By studying and even translating their language, Richardson revealed that the opposite was true. 

“They were certainly very literate,” she says, “maybe some of the most literate people in Islamic society in the past.”

Image of early printing 1561
Block-printed amulet, Egypt, 13th century. Paper and ink, 10.2 x 4.6-4.9 in. (26 x 11.8-12.5 cm). J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah

As evidence, she discovered that they were printing on paper in the Middle East 500 years before Johannes Gutenberg introduced his famous printing press around 1440. The Roma used woodblock printing, which involved carving into wooden blocks to print type on paper. Richardson, in fact, has helped other researchers tie the Roma to the first known printed biblical excerpt, which was produced in 10th-century Egypt in both Greek and Arabic and is also the first known printed text in a European language.

Another Roma block print from 13th-century Egypt includes Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic text. It is, in Richardson’s words, additional “testament to the broad literacy of traveling peoples in the Islamic Middle Ages.”

Today, the Roma are the largest minority in Europe, and yet, they’ve largely been ignored by historians. Prior to Richardson’s book, the last book about Roma history came out in France in 1903. Richardson attributes this lack of curiosity to lingering bias.

“I think we’ve internalized the stereotypes that they were illiterate, and that they didn't care about history,” she says.

As a historian, Richard isn’t into studying the famous. “I never read about kings and queens,” she says. “I assume that most of history is not driven by one great man or woman, but that it’s usually a large current of what we would call ordinary people.” She cites the spread of hip hop from the Bronx to Sri Lanka as evidence, noting it “had nothing to do with President Reagan. It’s people who make history.”

Her previous book, Difference and Disability in the Medieval Islamic World, explores the ways people with physical differences were treated in the Islamic Middle Ages. And her newest co-edited book, The Notebook of Kamāl al-Dīn the Weaver, written in Arabic, brings readers the account of a weaver, merchant, and poet from the Ottoman Arab provinces. His written record is the earliest known Arabic notebook of an artisan or merchant.

Besides pure curiosity, Richardson has followed advice that she received early in her career: Read everything, even if you don’t think it’s relevant to what you’re doing. “Read every newspaper article,” she says. “Just keep it up and be open to the world. I think that’s the best advice I ever got. I think that’s allowed me to try to see connections across Eurasia and Africa.”

Her study of the Roma has led her to a new topic: the enslavement of African people in the medieval Middle East. “It’s a pretty taboo topic in my field,” she says. “We don’t really talk about it, or we talk about it in ways that make it seem like a very benign form of enslavement. And so I really want to get into what [slaves’] lives were like.”

As for spending her prize money, Richardson plans to use it for research trips to the Middle East and holding symposia. She will also donate some of it to famine relief organizations. “After that,” she says, “I would like to get a better pair of glasses.”

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