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 South Asia and the Indian Ocean world, specializing in cultural exchanges with the Middle East before 1500.

Research group affiliations

History Research Group

Publications and outputs

  • 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.
  • Islam beyond Empires – Mosques and Islamic Landscapes in India and the Indian Ocean
    dc.title: Islam beyond Empires – Mosques and Islamic Landscapes in India and the Indian Ocean Lambourn, E. dc.description.abstract: This chapter discusses the mosque architecture of Muslims who lived beyond Islamic polities, beyond the lands of Islam, it focuses in particular on coastal South Asia where many areas were never durably incorporated into Islamic polities and Muslims retained a large degree if community autonomy. Re-situating these mosques within their original social context, the chapter underlines the unique status of mosques in this environment as multifunctional centres of community life; the collaborative, multi-faith social networks that underpinned their construction and maintenance and the consequences of this deep local embededness for the architectural forms and ground plans of such structures.
  • Ali Akbar’s red horse – collecting Arab horses in the early modern culture of Empire.
    dc.title: Ali Akbar’s red horse – collecting Arab horses in the early modern culture of Empire. Lambourn, E. dc.description.abstract: The Islamicate world has barely featured thus far in the new academic study of collecting, collectors and collections, certainly nowhere in proportion to its vast geographical and temporal extent. My chapter contributes to this nascent bibliography with a study of the relationships between merchant brokers and court collectors in seventeenth century India, as they emerge through the case study of ‘Ali Akbar Isfahani and his provision of ‘jewels and horses’ to the Mughal emperor of India, Shah Jahan. Using ‘Ali Akbar’s career as a case study, this chapter discusses what is known, and not known, about the role of merchants as patrons and brokers, providing in the process a survey of the existing literature. The second part of this chapter addresses is the place of the horse in collections as an animate ‘collectable.' The study of a particular 'red' horse supplied by ‘Ali Akbar to Shah Jahan queries and disrupts some of Asian art’s more established taxonomies and argues for a less object-centric, more holistic view of what was collected, by whom, how and why, in early modern Eurasia.

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.

Membership of external committees

Member of the Comité Scientifique, Red Sea Conference IX, "Networked spaces: the spatiality of networks in the Red Sea and Western Indian Ocean," ENS Lyon, 3-5 July 2019.

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 Historical Society

Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Current research students

Charlotte Wilkinson

Aya Alsheikh Salem

Jennifer Dranttel

Externally funded research grants information

1) 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).

This is funded by an AHRC Network Grant; the research network was initiated in recognition of the pressing need for research into the Indian Ocean world before 1500 and the need to do this through multidisciplinary and trans-regional collaborations.  The network gathers over 25 international scholars from Japan via the UK and India through to the USA to work on the first holistic study of the Kollam plates, a unique set of mid-9th century land grants made to an Eastern Christian Church at this south Indian port.  Among the core themes of the network are issues of legal extraterritoriality and legal encounter, cultural translation and inter-faith cooperation through religious patronage.  The first network workshop, to produce a revised edition and English translation of the Tamil grant will take place at The British Museum on 1 and 2 October 2012; the final workshop is scheduled for summer 2013.  The papers from the final workshop will be published alongside the revised Tamil text and English translation of the core document as a multi-author volume on 9th century Indian Ocean communities and networks with myself as the editor and author of the Introduction.

2) West Asia in the Indian Ocean 500-1500 CE., Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship, 1 October 2011 - 30 September 2013. £85,859

Funded by a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship West Asia in the Indian Ocean 500-1500 CE is a scholarly text which will write a social and cultural history of West Asian diasporas in the Indian Ocean over the critical millennium from the rise of Islam/Arab expansion across Europe and Asia in the early 7th century to the first large scale entry of European powers into the Indian Ocean during the late 15th century.  The research breaks radically with established disciplinary structures by focusing on a West Asian “diasporic family” rather than on single communities or faiths, and rejects tired land-centred perspectives in favour of a maritime centred viewpoint.  These approaches make this an original and ambitious project in terms of its geographical reach, timeframe and the multi-disciplinarity of its approaches and subject matter.  The research contributes towards the much needed “deep history” of the relationship between West Asia and the Indian Ocean, a history which also contributes to our understanding of the extended Indian Ocean diasporas in contemporary Europe and North America.  The manuscript is scheduled for completion in autumn 2013.

Professional esteem indicators

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

Member of Editorial Board, The Medieval Globe (since 2012)