Professor Elizabeth Lambourn

Job: Professor of Material Histories

Faculty: Arts, Design and Humanities

School/department: School of Fashion and Textiles

Research group(s): History

Address: De Montfort University, The Gateway, Leicester, UK, LE1 9BH

T: +44 (0)116 257 7440



Personal profile

Elizabeth Lambourn is a historian of the Indian Ocean world, committed to the interdisciplinary and cross-cultural study of medieval history. After a PhD in Islamic Art from SOAS (University of London) she has travelled far from her foundations in art history. Her work engages equally with texts and ‘things,’ and with texts as material ‘things.’ Elizabeth has held fellowships at Harvard and Stanford, and a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship (2011-13). In Fall 2022 she was a Fellow at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Studies in Uppsala. Elizabeth is the author of the research monograph Abraham’s Luggage. A Social Life of Things in the Medieval Indian Ocean World (2018) and editor of the volumes Legal Encounters on the Medieval Globe (2017) and A Cultural History of the Sea in the Medieval Age (2021). She was a founding board member of the journal The Medieval Globe and also sits on the Advisor Boards of the journals Medieval Worlds and EUP's new Journal of Islamic Art and Architecture. She currently advises for the series Approaching Medieval Sources (Routledge) and OUP's Oxford Studies in the New Medieval History.


Research group affiliations

History Research Group

Publications and outputs

  • “No importance and no value”? Geniza sources on personal shopping and the 'economy of regard'
    dc.title: “No importance and no value”? Geniza sources on personal shopping and the 'economy of regard' Lambourn, E. dc.description.abstract: This chapter explores the relationships between domestic and commercial worlds, and the potential of documents from the Cairo Geniza to contribute to this exploration. In this contribution, I focus on the shopping activities of India traders and the ways that shopping for business partners worked to consolidate networks as well as to build both domestic and commercial spaces. In the first part of this contribution, I drill down into the mechanisms of exchange which underlay the shipments of household items intended for personal and family use in India. In the second I work with the idea of the ‘economy of regard’ first proposed by the economic historian Avner Offer in the article ‘Between the Gift and the Market’, written in the late 1990s, to unpick how shopping for goods destined for ‘the personal use of the Jewish merchant in India and his family’ constituted an opportunity for the accumulation and consolidation of regard within the merchant community, or, from another perspective, a potentially dangerous activity that imperilled regard.
  • Sweet Water on the Sea Route to China: Watering Stops and Torpedo-Jar Capacities in Long-Distance Indian Ocean Sailing
    dc.title: Sweet Water on the Sea Route to China: Watering Stops and Torpedo-Jar Capacities in Long-Distance Indian Ocean Sailing Lambourn, E. dc.description.abstract: Potable, or “sweet,” water was the foundation stone of maritime provisioning and, by implication, route planning on all but the shortest voyages in the premodern world. Without it, maritime trade and all other forms of seaborne exchange and circulation were effectively impossible. Yet water sources and technologies of transportation have been comparatively neglected in Indian Ocean history and archaeology. This paper rereads data from the ninth-century section of the Akhbār al-Ṣīn wa-l-Hind (Accounts of China and India) alongside recent evidence from two contemporary shipwrecks to examine the spacing of watering stops and the technologies of water transportation employed on long-distance sailings between the Gulf and Chinese ports. Working from the 2021 publication of the volumetric capacity of a group of so-called torpedo jars excavated in Thailand, this article proposes some preliminary quantitative estimates of the volume of freshwater, and thus the number of water jars, required on board vessels at the time. In so doing it raises important questions about the portability and handling of torpedo jars as well as the varied uses and reuses of such transport jars. Weaving passages from the Akhbār with information on ceramic remains from the Phanom Surin and Belitung wrecks, this article aims to start a conversation about the very real physical and physiological parameters that underlay Indian Ocean connectivity and the water transportation technologies that underpinned them. dc.description: open access journal
  • Trade and containerisation. Perspectives from the Indian Ocean world.
    dc.title: Trade and containerisation. Perspectives from the Indian Ocean world. Lambourn, E. dc.description.abstract: This contribution begins with an overview of the scholarship on pre-modern Indian Ocean trade and current knowledge about technologies of trade in the western Indian Ocean. Viewing containerisation as a distinct and often neglected technology within tools of exchange, the sources and issues associated with the understanding of historical practices of containerisation of traded commodities across this vast, culturally diverse area are then explored in more detail. Parts two and three of the contribution focus on both hard containerisation in the form of ceramic storage and transport jars, and on soft containerisation as represented by sacks and bales. Although ceramics are the most visible and durable indexes of medieval exchanges and trade, in the Indian Ocean world textile bales and sacks were the preferred materials for packing and transporting solid commodities. Future studies of Indian Ocean trade must continue to work with both technologies, however varied their patterns of survival and problematical their interpretation. dc.description: This paper was produced as part of my participation in an ERC funded workshop. I was not named on the grant application.
  • A Cultural History of the Sea in the Medieval Age (800-1450)
    dc.title: A Cultural History of the Sea in the Medieval Age (800-1450) Lambourn, E. dc.description.abstract: The cultural history of the sea during the Middle Ages is a young and dynamic field. Born only recently in the literary criticism of European sources - and still flourishing there - this innovative volume nevertheless pushes out beyond this European literary heartland to explore the shape and potential of a cultural history of the sea constructed also from global literatures and oral traditions, and from material things. The chapters in this volume bring together the perspectives and expertise of archaeologists, historians and literary historians with a core focus on Afro-Eurasia and its encircling seas. Together these chapters explore topics as diverse as the evolving visual representation of the seas in Europe, the Islamic world and the Far East; the development of navigation technologies in the seas around Afro-Eurasia; imaginative projections of the sea in cultures ranging from Maori Aotearoa to Europe; a history of maritime and riverine trade networks across medieval Afro-Eurasia and two novel comparative studies, of islands and shores in Mediterranean and Indian Ocean history, and of the archaeology of fishing and fish eating in the North Atlantic and Swahili worlds. Several of these chapters represent world firsts in their willingness to write across such broad seascapes and temporal ranges. Other chapters narrow their focus to provide case studies and transferrable models of topics such as literary evidence for the lived experiences of Mediterranean sea travelers and conflict at sea in the western Indian Ocean. This volume does not pretend to offer a definitive answer to how a more global cultural history of the sea should be written, it offers not “The” but “A” Cultural History of the Sea for the period between 800 and 1450 CE, shaped as much by the parameters of the series itself as by the vision, curiosity and expertise of its editor and individual contributors. In so doing this volume hopes to open fresh dialogues amongst cultural historians of the sea, and to bring new ideas and questions to the greater numbers of non-specialists just now venturing into this field.
  • Yemen and India from the Rise of Islam to 1500
    dc.title: Yemen and India from the Rise of Islam to 1500 Lambourn, E.; Ashur, Amir dc.description.abstract: This chapter contributes to the little known history of medieval Jewish communities in the East, namely those of the Yemen and India. This innovative pairing of the two regions, usually discussed separately and possessed of radically different historical narratives, sets the history of each Jewish community within the larger context of Indian Ocean trade and medieval trans-Eurasian flows to offer new perspectives and new narratives.
  • Some New Uses of the Geniza Mercantile Letter – On the Materiality of Writing in the Indian Ocean World.
    dc.title: Some New Uses of the Geniza Mercantile Letter – On the Materiality of Writing in the Indian Ocean World. Lambourn, E. dc.description.abstract: This contribution centres on the materiality of writing in exchanges between the Eastern Mediterranean and India’s western seaboard in the period before 1500. More specifically it focuses on the writing supports and marking technologies used in the correspondence of Jewish sojourners from North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean residing in South Asia, as documented in twelfth century material from the Cairo Geniza. Writing materials are never simply passive carriers of a primary written meaning, rather, the materialities of writing are imbued with meaning and are themselves legible. South Asia was, and long remained, a largely paperless culture and the adaptations of North African and the Eastern Mediterranean sojourners to this environment speak powerfully of deeply held cultural ideas about writing and its functions.
  • Material cultures of writing in the Indian Ocean world: a palm leaf letter at the Mamluk court
    dc.title: Material cultures of writing in the Indian Ocean world: a palm leaf letter at the Mamluk court Lambourn, E. dc.description.abstract: This contribution centres on writing technologies in the western Indian Ocean before 1500; more particularly it explores the communicative role of writing supports in long distance, transcultural interactions through a case study from late thirteenth century Mamluk Cairo. The article focuses on Mamluk accounts of the receipt at court of what was ultimately an illegible letter from a Sri Lankan ruler. The embassy left a remarkable literary trace for several generations afterwards, a sign if it were needed that an illegible letter can nevertheless communicate powerfully. The fact that even in the late thirteenth century, after centuries of diplomatic exchanges along the length of the Indian Ocean, a letter might arrive in a language that no one in Cairo could read is a healthy reminder first and foremost of the central importance of envoys and oral missives in diplomatic exchanges at this period. This study also highlights scholarly neglect of the containment of epistolary texts, and more generally any form of writing containment that is not “book” binding in the strictest sense, or related to the containment of written amulets. Like the much neglected envelope, there is ample room for studies of other types of document container.
  • The Medieval Globe 2.2
    dc.title: The Medieval Globe 2.2 Lambourn, E.
  • India in the ‘India Book’: 12th Century Northern Malabar through Geniza Documents
    dc.title: India in the ‘India Book’: 12th Century Northern Malabar through Geniza Documents Lambourn, E. dc.description.abstract: The publication in 2008 of S.D. Goitein & M.A. Friedman’s “India Book” (India Traders of the Middle Ages: Documents from the Cairo Geniza ('India Book'). Leiden / Boston, E.J. Brill) is revolutionising the history of the medieval Indian Ocean, or at least the possibilities for that history. This chapter represents a first attempt to integrate the new data from the Genizah documents into the history of the Malabar ports where these Jewish merchants – now referred to as “India traders” - operated. The early 12th century was a period of huge political and economic change and the data from these documents allows us to shed light on a little known period, and one badly represented in indigenous sources.
  • Abraham's Luggage
    dc.title: Abraham's Luggage Lambourn, E. dc.description.abstract: From a single merchant's list of baggage begins a history that explores the dynamic world of medieval Indian Ocean exchanges. This fresh and innovative perspective on Jewish merchant activity shows how this list was a component of broader trade connections that developed between the Islamic Mediterranean and South Asia in the Middle Ages. Drawing on a close reading of this unique twelfth-century document, found in the Cairo Genizah and written in India by North African merchant Abraham Ben Yiju, Lambourn focuses on the domestic material culture and foods that structured the daily life of such India traders, on land and at sea. This is an exploration of the motivations and difficulties of maintaining homes away from home, and the compromises that inevitably ensued. Abraham's Luggage demonstrates the potential for writing challenging new histories in the accidental survival of apparently ordinary ephemera.

Click here for a full listing of Elizabeth Lambourn‘s publications and outputs.

Key research outputs

Abraham's Luggage. A Social Life of Things in the Medieval Indian Ocean World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Legal Encounters on the Medieval Globe. Kalamazoo ILL: ARC Humanities Press, 2017.

Research interests/expertise

Indian Ocean histories 600-1500, merchant material cultures, the material worlds of the Cairo Geniza "India Book," circulation and exchange of paper and metalwork. I am interested in supervising PhDs relevant to my areas of expertise and research.


PhD School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

MA (Hons.) University of Edinburgh, summa cum laude.

Honours and awards

Fellow of the British Academy

Membership of external committees

Member of Advisory Board, Maldives Heritage Survey. PIs Dr. Michael Feener (Oxford Center for Islamic Studies) and P. Daly (Earth Observatory, Nanyang Technical University, Singapore), Arcadia sponsored

Member of Advisory Group, Royal Ontario Museum, The Indian Ocean: Crossroads of Globalization.

Member of International Advisory Board, Medieval Worlds, supported by the Austrian Academy of Sciences

Membership of professional associations and societies

Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Consortium member: CALLFRONT Calligraphic Scripts from the Frontier Regions of the Islamic World, directed by Prof. Brac de la Périère, Sorbonne Université, Paris.

Forthcoming events

Panel organiser CIHA 2024, Lyon, June 2024  Create, Recreate: Towards Experimental History of Art? (

Recent research outputs

Forthcoming   “Ceramic Transport Jars – Clues to Persianate Actors and Networks in the Indian Ocean World (8th through 10th Centuries AD).” In Iran and Persianate Culture in the Indian Ocean World edited by Andrew Peacock. London: British Academy.

“No importance and no value”? Geniza sources on personal shopping and the ‘economy of regard.’” In The Economic and Maritime History of India and Beyond: Issues and Perspectives, Essays in Honour of Prof. Ranabir Chakravarti, edited by Suchandra Ghosh, 122-60. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2023.

“Sweet Water on the Sea Route to China: Watering Stops and Torpedo-Jar Capacities in Long-Distance Indian Ocean Sailing,” Al-ʿUṣūr al-Wusṭā 30 (2022): 148-82.

“Jewish Merchants in the Indian Ocean Trade.” In Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Asian History, 2022. Available online at

“Some New Uses of the Geniza Mercantile Letter – On the Materiality of Writing in the Indian Ocean World.” In Fruit of Knowledge, Wheel of Learning: Essays in Honour of Professor Robert Hillenbrand, edited by Melanie Gibson, 158-79. London: Gingko Library, 2022.

Current research students

Charlotte Wilkinson

Aya Alsheikh Salem


Externally funded research grants information

A Persian Church in the Land of Pepper - Routes, Networks and Communities in the Early Medieval Indian Ocean. 1 December 2011-30 September 2013, Principal Investigator, Co-Investigator Dr. R. Tomber The British Museum, and large network of international scholars. £35,974.66 (AHRC contribution) or £44,968.32 (FEC).

West Asia in the Indian Ocean 500-1500 CE., Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship, 1 October 2011 - 30 September 2013. £85,85

Professional esteem indicators

Member of the AHRC Peer Review College (2012-2019).