Reading Amadís in Istanbul


Constantinople circa 1500

It was 1541 in Constantinople when Sephardic physician Jacob Algaba published his Hebrew translation of the first book of Spanish runaway bestseller Amadís de Gaula (1508). His translation of the endless adventures of the knight errant became the first novel written in the Hebrew language, and a literary example of Sephardic culture as the site of a symbolic struggle between the Spanish and Ottoman Empires.

In a way Algaba’s translation is exemplary of the complex relationship Sephardim had with the culture of the land from which they had been expelled in 1492.  Part of the way in which the Sephardim expressed their ‘Spanishness’ was in mimicking the intellectual and cultural habits of Imperial Spain.  They reenacted Spanish cultural imperialism by their imposition of Sephardic culture on the Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire and by their adaptation of the Humanist rhetoric of Spanish historians and novelists. Just as the Spanish Amadís was imagined as a Christian hero of Spanish imperial designs, Algaba’s Sephardic Amadís was a sort of avatar of Sephardic supremacy within the Jewish world, and a response to the Sephardim’s alienation from Spain.

On the stage of the Mediterranean at the turn of the sixteenth century, the Sephardim are a sort of by-product of empire. Jettisoned from Spain, the Sephardim were free to rebrand ‘Spanishness’ to suit their own interests. They were hardly, after all, ambassadors of Spanish interests. But they were profoundly shaped by the cultural legacy of the land they had called home for over one thousand years by 1492. Though rejected by their home metropolis, they were still able to convert their Spanish identity into social currency in the host metropolis.

A Knight against the Turk

The chivalric novel Amadís de Gaula (1508) by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo was a smash hit and set the standard for popular fiction of the sixteenth century. Readers could not get enough of the (seemingly endless) exploits of the knight errant who protected the weak, battled dark knights, sorcerers, and dragons, all in the name of his beautiful damsel Oriana. Montalvo’s book, and its many, lucrative sequels, itself became a kind of popular literary monster that only Don Quijote could defeat, effectively parodying Amadís and his successors to death in 1605.

Wait til they get a load of him

But Amadís was more than a fictional hero. Spanish readers imagined him (and in particular his son, Esplandían) as a kind of avatar of Spanish imperial desire, a knight in service to Spain first against the Muslim Kingdom of Granada, and then against the Turk (the Ottoman Empire). In casting these fictional knights errant as imperial heroes, Montalvo was simply participating in the Humanism of his times. Humanist writers working at the court of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella actively promoted a program of imperial imagery that painted Spain as a new Rome, mixing language and imagery from the Latin writings of Imperial Rome with specifically Iberian and Catholic elements. The result was a narrative in which the Spanish crown was a renewal of the Holy Roman Empire, itself a renewal of Classical Rome (Tate, Ensayos 292). In the introduction to the first Amadís, Montalvo wonders aloud how the writers of Classical Rome would have been inspired to new heights had they witnessed the glorious campaigns of King Ferdinand in Granada:

¡what flowers, what roses might they have planted on its occasion, as concerns the bravery of the knights in the battles, skirmishes, and dangerous duels and all the other cases of confrontations and travails that were performed in the course of that war, as well as of the compelling speeches made by the great King to his nobles gathered in the royal campaign tents, the obedient replies made by them, and above all, the great praises, the lofty admirations that he deserves for having taken on and accomplished such a Catholic task!
(Rodríguez Montalvo, Amadís 219-220, translation mine).

Once the threat of Muslim Granada had been conquered by Ferdinand and Isabel in 1492, it was a logical next step to look toward Istanbul. The Ottoman Turks had, after all, conquered Constantinople in the not-so-distant past, and the loss of Christian Constantinople was, during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs, still a fresh wound. Diego Enríquez del Castillo (ca. 1500), wrote that “the pain of the loss of Constantinople, that the Turk had conquered, was very recent in the hearts of all.” (Crónica 156). Ever since the Ottoman sack of Otranto, Italy in 1481, Spanish (and particularly Aragonese) writers were preoccupied by the possibility of a Turkish invasion of the Peninsula (Giráldez, Sergas 24). While an Ottoman invasion of Spain was probably not in the offing, such fears were similar to US fears of a Soviet invasion 1960s following the Cuban Revolution and famously parodied in the 1966 film The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming. The cult of Amadís and his successors and their iconic (if anachronistic) status as Christian heroes of imaginary conquests in the Mediterranean East were an understandable, if irrational, reaction.

Don Quijote’s Dream Team: Knights Errant vs the Turk

Mehmet enters Constantinople (1454) by Fausto Zonaro (1854-1929)

Amadís finally met his match in Don Quijote, who parodied the knight errant protagonists of the Spanish chivalric novel beyond any hope of redemption. Interestingly, Cervantes also zeroed in on the tendency of fans of chivalric fiction to conflate the exploits of their heroes with current events. In this scene, Alonso Quijano (aka Don Quijote) suggests a simple solution for King Philip II’s ‘Ottoman Problem’: round up all the Spanish knights errant and send them to fight the Turk:

there might be one among them who could, by himself, destroy all the power of the Turk…. [if] the famous Don Belianís were alive today, or any one of the countless descendants of Amadís of Gaul! If any of them were here today and confronted the Turk, it would not be to his advantage!’ (trans. Grossman 461)

The effect is similar to a movie in which the sci-fi crazed protagonist suggests sending Luke Skywalker to battle Al-Qaeda. The English translator of Sergas de Esplandían (Montalvo’s sequel to Amadís) made a similar observation, calling Luke Skywalker “a kind of Esplandían redividus” (Little, “Introduction” 21).

What does a Sephardic Amadís look like? And what might a Hebrew Amadís champion, if not the Spanish conquest of Ottoman Istanbul where Jacob Algaba translated the exploits of the Ur-Knight Errant into Hebrew a generation after Montalvo described Amadís’ deeds as worthy to be celebrated by the pens of Imperial chroniclers? In order to answer this, we need to take a look at the ways in which Sephardic intellectuals retooled and adapted the intellectual habits of the Spain they had left behind.

‘Doing Spanish’: Sephardic Humanism and Cultural Imperialism

Upon their arrival in Ottoman lands, the Sephardim proceeded to dominate the Romaniote (Greek-speaking) and other Jewish communities. They were bearers of a prestigious European cultural legacy, and many of them were highly skilled in areas valued by the Ottoman Sultans: finance, administration, diplomacy, and the like. In addition the Sephardim had access to tremendous social capital in the form of international, even global trade and diplomatic networks. Contemporary sources bear out this characterization of the Sephardim as the socially and culturally dominant group within Ottoman Jewry, imposing their liturgy, rabbinic jurisprudence, cuisine, language, and social customs on the wider community. Writing in 1509, Rabbi Moses Aroquis of Salonika bears witness to this phenomenon:

It is well known that the Sephardim and their scholars in this empire, together with the other communities that have joined them, make up the majority, may the lord be praised. To them alone the land was given, and they are its glory and its splendor and its magnificence, enlightening the land and its inhabitants. Who deserves to order them about? All these places too should be considered as ours, and it is fitting that the small number of early inhabitants of the empire observe all our religious customs… (cited in Hacker, “Sephardim” 111)

This Sephardic cultural imperialism is one way in which the Sephardim expressed their ‘Spanishness,’ in carrying out a version of the Spanish cultural imperialism that characterized the late fifteenth century. Just as Spain colonized the Canary Islands, the New World, and bits of North Africa, the Sephardim did likewise in their new territories, the Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire.

This imperialism, like the Spanish, also had its attendant historiography, its intellectual culture: a Sephardic Humanism. The historian Solomon ibn Verga, writing in Hebrew in the mid-sixteenth century, borrowed liberally from Spanish sources and like his Christian historian counterparts, legitimized the current political order by linking it to the regimes of Classical Antiquity. In his history of expulsions and persecutions he writes like a Humanist, substituting both authors of Hebrew antiquity (Bible, Rabbis) for Latin and Greek authors favored by Christian humanists, but he also draws on Classical and medieval Iberian authors, lending his prose of more sophisticated, cosmopolitan tone. (Gutwirth, “Expulsion” 149-150). He cites Josephus frequently, creating a Jewish humanist precedent in the Roman author who plays Virgil to his Dante.

Amadís in the Sephardic context

What is the role of a Hebrew Amadís in this context? As with the case of Ibn Verga’s history book (Shevet Yehudah), the project of the Sephardic intellectual is twofold: on the one hand, they sought to legitimize their work by drawing on the prestige of Spanish Humanism; on the other, they reshaped this humanism into one that reflected the values of the community in a diasporic, transimperial context.

But never on Shabbat

Algaba’s translation does not appear ex nihilo. Ottoman Sephardim were avid readers of Spanish editions of Amadís and other chivalric novels. In the early sixteenth century, Jerusalemite Rabbi Menahem di Lunzano chastised his community (in verse) for reading Amadís and Palmerín [de Olivia, 1511]  on Shabbat (the Sabbath), when they should have been reading religious books (Di Lunzano, Shete Yadot f. 135v). There was also a robust tradition of ballads sung in Sephardic communities about heroes named Don Amadí (or sometimes Amalví or other variants). Many of these songs had nothing to do whatsoever with the stories found in Montalvo’s book; Amadís had simply come to mean ‘hero’ in the popular Sephardic imagination. (Armistead and Silverman, “Amadís” 29-30)

Jacob Algaba's Hebrew translation of Amadís de Gaula

Montalvo’s original Amadís had to pass muster with the Catholic censors and with the chivalric imaginary of the Spain of the Catholic Monarchs. Algaba, while giving voice to the Sephardic love for their vernacular culture, is free of these limits. He based his translation not from Montalvo’s 1508 edition, but from an earlier manuscript version whose Amadís was earthier, wilier, less courtly and less likely to make it into print in Spain in 1508. Algaba’s Amadís plays dirty when nessary, and the characters in Algaba’s version tell it like it is. In one example, Algaba includes an episode omitted by Montalvo where Amadís tricks his opponent into looking away in order to hit him: He asks the knight ‘to whom does that beautiful maiden behind you belong?’ When the knight looks away, Amadís sticks him in the groin with his lance, spilling his guts (Piccus, “Corrections” 187-88). In another example, Montalvo omits a reference to a character farting that is included by Algaba (Piccus, “Corrections” 201). These are scenes that do not pass muster with the chivalric imaginary of the Spain of the Catholic Monarchs.

The Hebrew Amadís, therefore, is at once celebratory of and resistant to Montalvo’s Amadís. The culture of Montalvo’s Amadís, with its exaggerated religious rhetoric and rarefied standards of courtliness, has rejected Algaba (who was born in Spain), and Algaba is happy to return the favor, refashioning Amadís as a Sephardic hero, one who springs from Iberian tradition but who is free of the restraints of official Spanish culture as propagated by the courts and controlled by the censors of the Catholic Monarchs.

Works cited

  • Armistead, S. G. “Amadís de Gaula en la literatura oral de los sefardíes.” La pluma es lengua del alma: Ensayos en honor del E. Michael Gerli. Ed. José Manuel Hidalgo. Newark, DE: Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs, 2011. 27-32.
  • Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel. Don Quixote. Trans. Edith Grossman. New York: Ecco, 2003.
  • Enríquez del Castillo, Diego. Crónica de Enrique IV de Diego Enríquez del Castillo. Ed. Aureliano Sánchez Martín. Valladolid: Secretariado de Publicaciones  Universidad de Valldolid, 1994.
  • Giráldez, Susan. Las sergas de Esplandián y la España de los Reyes Católicos. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.
  • Gutwirth, Eleazar. “The Expulsion from Spain and Jewish Historiography.” Jewish History: Essays in Honour of Chimen Abramsky. London: Peter Halban, 1988. 141-161.
  • Hacker, Joseph. “The Sephardim in the Ottoman Empire in the Sixteenth Century.” The Sephardi Legacy. Vol. 2. 2 vols. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1992. 108-133.
  • Little, William. “Introduction.” The Labors of the Very Brave Knight Esplandían. Trans. William Little. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1992. 1-61.
  • Lunzano, Menahem di. Shete yadot. Jerusalem: [s.n], 1969.
  • Piccus, Jules. “Corrections, Suppressions, and Changes in Montalvo’s Amadís, Book I.” Textures and Meaning: Thirty Years of Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Ed. Leonard Ehrlich et al. Amherst: Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2004. 179-211.
  • Rodríguez de Montalvo, Garci. Amadís de Gaula. Madrid: Cátedra, 1987.
  • —. Sergas de Esplandían. Ed. Carlos Sainz de la Maza. Madrid: Castalia, 2003.
  • Tate, Robert Brian. Ensayos sobre la historiografía peninsular del siglo XV. Madrid: Gredos, 1970.

This post was adapted from “Reading Amadís in Constantinople: the Sephardic as imperial abject,” a paper I gave at the  2011 UC Mediterranean Research Project Fall Workshop: “Mediterranean Empires” on 29 October 2011 at UCLA. [Workshop program] Thanks to the Seminar organizers for their hospitality and support.

Ethnic Polemic in Medieval Spain: Arabiyya, Shu’ubiyya, and Ibraniyya

Summary: In the Abbasid-era (800s-900s) authors writing in Arabic joined a debate between those who identified as ethnically Arab and those who identified as Persian. This debate was reproduced in al-Andalus (1000s) between Arab and non-Arab Spanish Muslims. Jewish writers in al-Andalus then adapted this debate to the question of the relative superiority of Arabic and Hebrew as a literary language for the Jewish communities of Spain. After the Christian conquest of Spain, Arabic was replaced by Castilian at court. Nonetheless, Hebrew writers continued to battle the specter of Arabic’s literary legacy even as they faced the new, more immediate threat of Hebrew’s extinction by vernacularization and eventually by mass conversions of Spanish Jews to Christianity.

Arabiyya: Arab superiority in a Multiethnic Islam

The Arabic language boasts a rich poetic tradition that predates Islam by some centuries. The revelation of the Qur’an in Arabic was further proof (for the Muslim community) of the superiority of their language, and by extension, their culture. When the community of Islam began to grow beyond the borders of the Arabian peninsula where Arabic was a native language, large numbers of Persians, Assyrians, Berbers, and members of other ethnic and linguistic groups began to adopt Arabic as their literary language. Arabic became an imperial language used by authors from a variety of ethnic and linguistic groups. In this pluralist Islamic society, during the first centuries of the Abbasid Caliphate (beginning in 762 CE), there developed a debate over the relationship between language and ethnic identity that was critical of the doctrine of Arabiyya (also the word for the Arabic language), the idea that the superiority of the Arabic language flowed from the superiority of the Arabs themselves, a fact proven by their being chosen to receive the Qur’an.

Arabic comes from here

Medieval Arab grammarians, attempting to clarify the meaning of obscure passages of the Qur’an, often visited Bedouin tribes to do linguistic fieldwork. The dialects of the Bedouins were considered by the city dwellers to be purer and closer to the language of the Qur’an. This idea was in contradiction to the idea that the language of the tribe of Quraysh, of which the Prophet Muhammad was a member, was the superior dialect of Arabic at the time the Qur’an was received. In order to solve this dilemma, the grammarian Abu Zakariyya Yahya bin Ziyad al-Farra’ (d. 822 CE), a native of Kufa (in present-day Iraq), explained that the dialect of the tribe of Quraysh, of which the Prophet Muhammad was a member, was superior because the Qurayshis were in constant contact with different Bedouin tribes. This way, he reasoned, the Qurayshis were able to select the best features from each of the Bedouin dialects in forming their own poetic language:

We said: In the same way they [the Qurayshis] were accustomed to hear from the tribes of the Arabs their dialects; so they could choose from every dialect that which was the best in it. So their speech became elegant and nothing of the more vulgar forms of speech was mixed up with it.
(Kahle, “Arabic” 69)

Shu’ubiyya: The response of the non-Arabs to Arabiyya

During the Abbasid Caliphate, Muslims of Persian background, many of whom were accomplished grammarians and poets in Arabic, criticized the doctrine of Arabiyya, instead advocating for the superiority of non-Arabs. This was the shu’ubiyya (from Arabic sha’b, ‘people’ or ‘nation’), the ethnic polemic between Arabs and non-Arabs. Shu’ubi writers attacked Arabs for their rustic origins as desert nomads, while they prided themselves as representatives of a cosmoplitan urbane culture that predated Islam. Thus the poet Abu Sa’id al-Rustami wrote in the tenth century CE:

The Arabs boast of being master of the world and commanders of peoples.
Why do they not rather boast of being skillful sheep and camel herders?
If I am asked about my descent —says the same poet—I am of the tribe of Rustam
but my song is of Lu’ayy b. Ghalib.
I am the one who is publicly and secretly known
as a Persian whom Arabianism (al-ta`rib) drew to itself.
I know well when calling the parole
that my origin is clear and my wood hard.
(Goldziher, Muslim 150)

Although the language of Abbasid era Shu’ubiyya speaks to ethnic origin, what was actually at stake for the writers and their audiences was the question of class and of access to prestigious administrative positions at court and in the Abbasid adminstration. The elites of Abbasid society largely claimed Arab descent, while the great mass of middle-class functionaries more often identified as Persian. Ultimately, the Shu’ubiyya debate was not about Persians being cultured and Arabs being primitive nomads, it was about gaining access to good white-collar jobs (Norris, “Shu’ubiyyah” 31).

Sassanid-era (Persian) warrior

In al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) this debate was reproduced by writers who identified as descendants of the Arab elite that led the 711 invasion of Visigothic Hispania, or as descendants of the various other ethnic groups that lived in the Iberian Peninsula (Hispano-Romans, Visigoths, Franks, Slavs, Basques) and who converted to Islam and adopted Arabic as their literary language.

The author Abu Amir ibn García al-Bashkunsi (i.e. ‘el vascuense’, the Basque) was one such author who resuscitated the shu’ubiyya debate in tenth century al-Andalus. In his case, the ruling class of the kingdom of Denia considered itself to be of pure Arab lineage and discriminated against those it considered to be of non-Arab stock. Ibn García himself, as his name suggests, was born a Christian in Basque country, but was taken captive as a child and brought to al-Andalus where he converted to Islam and received a classical Arabic education. His shu’ubi treatise (ca. 1050) harshly criticizes the rulers of Denia for their ethnic arrogance and their rustic origins:

Your mother, O Arabs, was a slave to our mother. If you deny this you will be found unjust. There is no excess in remonstrating, for we never tended monkeys nor did we weave mantles, nor did we eat wild herbs; there is no cutting off your relationship with Hājar; you were our slaves, servants, enfranchised ones, and valets… (Monroe, Shu’ubiyya 24)

[The non-Arabs] are clear, grave, not camel herders or diggers tilling the soil; great kings, not burners of camel dung for fuel…. These non-Arabs were warriors, not guardians of palm branches or planters of palm shoots…

…their drink was wine, and their food roasted meat, not the mouthful of colocynth seeds in the deserts or the eggs of lizards taken from their nests. (Monroe, Shu’ubiyya 25-26)


Jewish Arabiyya and Ibraniyya in al-Andalus

During Ibn García’s lifetime a parallel discussion was taking place within the Jewish communities of al-Andalus over the relative merits of Arabic and Hebrew. The Jewish communities of al-Andalus (Muslim-ruled Spain) were highly Arabized, but many were also conversant in the Romance dialects of the Iberian Peninsula. In addition to their participation in the Arabic-language culture of the times, Andalusi Jews also left behind a tremendous legacy of Hebrew-language learning ranging from Rabbinical treatises to secular poetry.

Some Andalusi Jewish writers, such as the poet Moses ibn Ezra, espoused a kind of Jewish Arabiyya. Ibn Ezra held Arabic to be a flawless model for Hebrew to follow. In his treatise on Hebrew poetics, Ibn Ezra argues that Arabic poetics are the benchmark for Hebrew poets. He even goes as far as saying that Biblical Hebrew poetry at its best sounds like Arabic poetry. Ibn Ezra’s poetic ideal is a sort of amalgam of Arabic poetic sensibility and Hebrew language:

And the poetry of Moses was true and kingly,
Like an Arabic poem, in words of sweetness.
And one speaking in the language of the Jews,
Spoken in perfect symmetry,
And the power of the speech of Araby
With its turns of phrase and eloquence.
Delightful sayings, in the Arabic tongue or the Hebrew,
And wisdom to grasp on every side, from each direction. (Allony, “Reaction” 35)

Even after Christian monarchs conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula, Arabic continued to be a prestigious language of secular and Jewish learning, particularly in the fields of grammar, poetics, and philosophy. A select elite of Jewish intellectuals living in Christian Iberia continued to study Arabic and to produce learned treatises in Arabic long after it ceased to be the language of government. The city of Toledo was conquered by Alfonso VI in 1085 CE, yet nearly a century and a half later Toledan writer Jacob ben Eleazar (fl. ca. 1220) would complete a treatise on Hebrew grammar, Kitab al-Kamil, in Arabic.

A contemporary of Ben Eleazar named Judah al-Harizi, who was a translator of Arabic literature into Hebrew as well as an author in his own right, begins his book Tahkemoni with a lament for the sorry condition of Hebrew language learning in the Jewish communities of the Arab world (including Spain), and calls for a Hebrew renaissance by which Jewish authors might lay claim to the literary greatness exemplified in the Hebrew Bible:

They have enslaved the tongue of the Israelites to the tongue of Kedar [i.e., Arabic] and they said: ‘come let us sell her to the Ishmaelites.’ And they said to her: ‘Bow down, that we may go over.’ And they took her and cast her into the pit until she perished among them. And the tongue of Kedar blackened her, and like a lion, tore her. An evil beast devoured her. All of them spurned the Hebrew tongue and made love to the tongue of Hagar. They embraced the bosom of an alien. They desired the wife of a stranger. They kissed her bosom, for stolen waters were sweet to them. Their hearts were seduced when they saw how excellent was the poetry that Hagar, Sarai’s Egyptian handmaiden had borne. And Sarai was barren!  (al-Harizi, Tahkemoni 32)

Around the same time in Toledo, Jacob ben Eleazar (author of the Kitab al-Kamil) wrote a collection of stories (Sefer Meshalim, ‘Book of Tales’), and like al-Harizi includes in his introduction a refutation of Arabic’s superiority and assertion of Hebrew’s literary greatness. He explains that the reason he wrote his Book of Tales was to demonstrate Hebrew’s virtues and to silence the doubters:

Said Jacob ben Eleazar: The reason for this book of tales, and the composition therein of my words, is because the learned amongst the Arabs were troubling the Holy Tongue, who nonetheless boasted against it in their insolence, saying: ‘it should be fitting to write in our language every tale!’ They were challenging Our Language, saying: ‘we will prevail!’….

Whereupon I began to compose, saying:

You would mock me, saying: ‘is not the Holy Tongue crude?’

But no! She is a giant who silences all others, run to her and do not falter, whether elegy or invective, or saw or anecdote. (Ben Eleazar, Love 14-15)

In these pro-Hebrew texts (Ibraniyya is the Arabic word for Hebrew), authors drew on some of the resources of the shu’ubiyya, but the context of their argument was quite different. Abbasid and Andalusi shu’ubi writers wrote in the dominant, official language of state that was common to both Arabs and non-Arabs. By contrast, Jewish writers of the Ibraniyya wrote in Hebrew, which was read exclusively by their Jewish peers. Their debate was internal to the Jewish community. They were fighting to determine which language would emerge victorious as the prestige language of secular learning in the Jewish communities.

Prato Haggadah, Spain 14th c. (image housed at Jewish Theological Seminary)

In a sense this debate was a rhetorical exercise. Thanks to the efforts of the Ibn Tibbon family of translators, Hebrew boasted a large repertory of secular scientific and philosophical texts brought over from Arabic originals (mid-twelfth to the early fourteenth centuries). The Ibn Tibbons were Spanish Jews who migrated to Provence during the mid-twelfth century, when the Almohad invasion of al-Andalus made life difficult for certain Andalusi Jewish communities. They translated scores of important works of grammar, Aristotelian philosophy, and science into Hebrew for diffusion among the Jewish communities of Europe and the Mediterranean who lived in countries where Arabic was not widely known. Thus Hebrew became a language of secular learning as well as of Rabbinics in the region (Robinson, “Ibn Tibbon”).

Ibraniyya after Arabic: The Threat of the vernacular

What is curious is that by the late thirteenth century, authors living in Christian Spain such as Isaac ibn Sahula were still waging poetic war against Arabic, which by now was no longer a productive secular literary language in Christian Iberia (though colloquial Arabic continued to be spoken, especially in Valencia, well into the sixteenth century). Stil, Ibn Sahula continues the Ibraniyya debate in the introduction to his collection of tales and anecdotes, Meshal Haqadmoni (‘Tale of the Old Timer,’ ca. 1285).

I shall explicate the reason for [this book’s] publication,
Upon God’s holy mountain [i.e. the Hebrew language] rests its foundation,
to declare its pure and holy nature is its purpose
to preach of the compelling greatness of Hebrew speech,
To show the nations and their generals its beauty.
For I saw that many had dulled its golden rhetoric,
Preferring instead all kind of other books:
The wisdom of the Greeks and the tales of the Arabs (Ibn Sahula, Meshal 10)

Ibn Sahula’s desire to ‘show the nations’ harkens back to the origins of the Shu’ubiyya debate, which emphasizes national or ethnic difference rather than linguistic. In the Jewish context, there are no ‘nations or generals’ to witness the beauty of the Hebrew language in Ibn Sahula’s book: his audience is exclusively Jewish. As in the case of al-Harizi, the debate is internal, a struggle to ensure that when Jews wrote works of poetry, philosophy, or science, that they did so in Hebrew and not Arabic.

"Translate this" --Alfonso X (1252-1284)

But was Arabic still a viable candidate in 1285 in Christian Castile? Ross Brann was written that by this time writers such as Ibn Sahula were fighting against the ‘ghost of Arabic,’ and that their aim was nationalistic, not linguistic (Brann, Compunctious 123). It is also possible that they were thinking about Spanish while writing against Arabic. In the second half of the thirteenth century, Alfonso X ‘The Learned’ of Castile-León funded a massive initiative to translate Arabic works of philosophy and science into Castilian (not Latin), with the aim to raise the prestige of the Castilian language to a level appropriate to the court of a king who dreamt of becoming Holy Roman Emperor. Though Castilian never gained much traction as a literary language in Spain’s Jewish communities (Wacks, “Toward”), Spanish Jewish authors were fluent speakers of Castilian and the other Romance dialects of the Peninsula, and were familiar with the vernacular literature of their times. The later examples of Ibraniyya may well have been using the Arabic trope as a foil for Castilian as a potential rival for Hebrew.

Ultimately, the threat to Hebrew’s fate on the Peninsula was not to be the adoption of Castilian as a Jewish literary language, but the mass conversion of Jews into Christians who then ceased to write in Hebrew (with a few interesting exceptions). In the early fifteenth century, the poet Solomon de Piera derides these converso poets as “flies who buzz around the horns of a buffalo, or monkeys who slide their hands fruitlessly up and down flutes” (Targarona Borrás, “Carta” 180). Eventually literary Hebrew was dealt the death blow of the Expulsion, which would relegate the study of Hebrew to Christian universities such as Salamanca and Alcalá.



  • Allony, Nehemiah. “The Reaction of Moses Ibn Ezra to `arabiyya.” Bulletin of the Institute of Jewish Studies 3 (1975): 19-40.
  • Ben Eleazar, Jacob. The Love Stories of Jacob Ben Eleazar (1170-1233?). Ed. Yonah David. Tel Aviv: Ramot Publishing, 1992.
  • Brann, Ross. The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Medieval Spain. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1991.
  • Goldziher, Ignác. Muslim studies. Trans. C.K. Barber & S.M. Stern. Chicago: Aldine, 1968.
  • Ibn Sahula, Isaac ben Solomon. Meshal Haqadmoni: Fables from the Distant Past. Portland: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004.
  • Kahle, Paul. “The Arabic Readers of the Koran.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 8.2 (1949): 65-71.
  • Monroe, James T. The Shu’ubiyya in al-Andalus: The Risala of Ibn García and Five Refutations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.
  • Norris, H.T. “Shu’ubiyyah in Arabic Literature.” ’Abbasid Belles-Lettres. Ed. Julia Ashtiany et Ashtiany. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1990. 31-47.
  • Robinson, James. “The Ibn Tibbon family: a dynasty of translators in medieval Provence.” Be’erot Yitzhak: Studies in Memory of Isadore Twersky. Ed. Jay Michael Harris. Cambridge: Harvard University Center for Jewish Studies, 2005. 193-224.
  • Roth, Norman. “Jewish Reactions to the ʿArabiyya and the Hebrew Renaissance in Spain.” Journal of Semitic Studies 28.1 (1983): 63-84.
  • Targarona Borrás, Judit. “Carta inédita de Selomoh de Piera al Rab Abraham ben Yishaq Ha-Levi.” Miscelánea de Estudios Árabes y Hebraicos 49 (2000): 165-189.
  • Wacks, David. “Toward a History of Hispano-Hebrew Literature of Christian Iberia in the Romance Context.” eHumanista 14 (2010): 178-209.

This post was written with support from the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at Stanford University, where I will deliver a talk on this subject (13 October 2011).