David Samuel Harvard Abulafia (born 12 December 1949) is an influential UK historian with a particular interest in Italy, Spain and the rest of the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. He has been Professor of Mediterranean History at the University of Cambridge since 2000 and a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge since 1974. He was Chairman of the History Faculty at Cambridge University, 2003-5, and was elected a member of the governing Council of Cambridge University in 2008.
Abulafia was born at Twickenham, England, into a very old Sephardic family that left Spain for Galilee around 1492 and lived for many generations in Tiberias. His wife Anna Sapir Abulafia is a historian of Jewish-Christian relations at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. He was educated at St. Paul's School and King's College, Cambridge.
He has published several books on Mediterranean history, beginning with his book The Two Italies in 1977; here he argued that as far back as the twelfth century northern Italy exploited the agricultural resources of the Italian south, and that this provided the essential basis for the further expansion of trade and industry in Tuscany, Genoa and Venice. He edited volume 5 of the New Cambridge Medieval History and the volume on Italy in the central Middle Ages in the Oxford Short History of Italy; he also edited an important collection of studies of the French invasion of Italy in 1494-5 as well as a book on The Mediterranean in History which has appeared in six languages. He has given lectures in many countries including Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Finland, Norway, the United States, Japan, Israel, Jordan and Egypt.
One of his most influential books is Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor, first published in England in 1988 and reprinted many times in several Italian editions. Here he looks at an iconic figure from the Middle Ages from a new perspective, criticizing the views of the famous German historian Ernst Kantorowicz concerning Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, whom Abulafia sees as a conservative figure rather than as a genius born out of his time.
He has been appointed Commendatore dell'Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà Italiana by the President of Italy in recognition of his writing on Italian history, especially Sicilian history, and he has also written about Spain, particularly the Balearic islands. He has shown an interest in the economic history of the Mediterranean, and in the meeting of the three Abrahamic faiths in the Mediterranean. Not confining himself to the Mediterranean, he has also written a much-praised book on the first encounters between western Europeans and the native societies of the Atlantic (the Canary islands, the Caribbean and Brazil) around 1492; this book is The Discovery of Mankind: Atlantic Encounters in the Age of Columbus (2008).
In 2011 Penguin Books (and, in the U.S., Oxford University Press New York) published his The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean, a substantial volume that sets out a different approach to Mediterranean history to that propounded by the famous French historian Fernand Braudel, and ranges in time from 22,000 BC to AD 2010. It rapidly became a bestseller in UK non-fiction and was widely acclaimed:
"This magnificent book ...is teeming with colourful characters. Over the course of nearly 800pp, we follow faiths; sail with fleets; trade with bankers, financiers and merchants; raid with pirates and observe battles and sieges; watch cities rise and fall and see peoples migrate in triumph and tragedy. But at its heart, this is a history of mankind - gripping, worldly, bloody, playful - that radiates scholarship and a sense of wonder and fun, using the Mediterranean as its medium, its watery road much travelled." -- Simon Sebag-Montefiore, Financial Times
"This memorable study, its scholarship tinged with indulgent humour and an authorial eye for bizarre detail, celebrates the swirling changeability at the heart of that wonderful symbiosis of man and nature which once took place long Mediterranean shores" -- Jonathan Keates, Sunday Telegraph
"An Everest of a book, brocaded with studious observation and finely-tuned scholarship...the effect is mesmerising, as detail accumulates meticulously." -- Ian Thomson, Independent
"David Abulafia's marvellous history of the Mediterranean is an excellent corrective to oversimplified views of geopolitics." -- Economist
"New, highly impressive book...magisterial work..." -- Prospect
- Who's Who 2011
- Debrett's People of Today 2011