Sephardic Literature after Las Navas de Tolosa: The Romance Turn in Jacob ben Elazar’s “Sahar and Kima”

This is the paper that I would have given today at the 47th International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalmazoo, Michigan, if the ticket from Eugene to Kalamazoo did not cost $900. Special thanks go to Prof Erik Ekman of Oklahoma State for organizing the panel “1212 Remembered: The Eight Hundreth Anniversary of Las Navas de Tolosa,” and for allowing me to lurk electronically via Skype from my office in Eugene. Thanks also to my co-panelists, Professor Barbara Boloix-Gallardo of Washington University and Prof. Jonathan Ray of Georgetown University. Feedback and comments are welcome via email.

 The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, as all of you know, is the cliché turning point of the balance of political power on the Iberian Peninsula between Christian and Muslim kingdoms. For Muslim political power, it was the beginning of the end, for Christians it was, or came to be understood retrospectively, as the point after which the total elimination of Muslim political power seemed imminent or at least possible. I’ll leave to the historians in the room the small detail that Granada continued to be a sovereign, if eventually tributary kingdom for some two hundred fifty years after Las Navas, and the even more problematic detail that Islam continued to be practiced in parts of Castile-Leon and Aragon for a full four hundred years after Las Navas.

But I am not going to speak about the battle itself, or even of the political context or related historical issues. Instead, I would like to use the literary production of Iberian Jews as a kind of lens through which to examine the cultural impact of the transition between Muslim and Christian rule in Castile, paying specific attention to how one Castilian writer of prose fiction in Hebrew bridged the Andalusi and Christian periods. The text in question, a collection of Hebrew tales by a man named Jacob ben Elazar, dates from the same decade as Las Navas de Tolosa, and is a bellweather for how Jewish literary culture reacted to regime change in Castile.

Ben Elazar’s Book of Tales (Sefer Ha-meshalim in Hebrew) is a collection of 10 short pieces of narrative.[1] In Ben Elazar’s tale “Sahar and Kima,” the author demonstrates his relationship to the literary culture of the dominant Christian society while simultaneously reflecting the Andalusi Hebrew literary tradition. In his manipulation of the literary conventions of the Hebrew maqama (rhyming prose narrative) he carves out new literary space to give voice to the concerns of a community in transition between Arabic-dominant and Romance-dominant host cultures.[2]

Ben Elazar is writing precisely when Castilian is still very much emergent as a literary language, when Gonzalo de Berceo —often named in literary histories as the first author to write in literary Castilian—writes his works of mester de clerecía (religious narrative poetry), and a full generation or two before the massive vernacularization project of Alfonso X.

In the context of Christian Castile, some of these new examples were bound to come from the literary practice of the Christian majority, notably the Romance-language poetry and prose that was written and read in the courts of Christian monarchs and nobles. Just as the Hebrew poets of the Jewish communities of al-Andalus succeeded in adapting Arabic poetics and literary mores for a Hebrew-speaking audience, Sephardic writers living in Christian Iberia drew on the literature of the Christian majority for inspiration. In the example we are about to explain, Ben Elazar’s adaptation of courtly romance is a diasporic literary strategy that draws both on the authority of Andalusi Hebrew literature and on the examples of the emergent Romance-language styles, including French chivalric romances, and troubadour poetry that were popular in Castile during the thirteenth century.

It is not particularly shocking in itself that a Sephardic writer would be imitating styles popular at court where he or his benefactor might have served. This was very much the case with Jewish writers in al-Andalus, who famously adapted Arabic poetics in their Hebrew verse over the course of the tenth to the twelfth centuries. In this case, however, Ben Elazar’s discourse of courtly love (for lack of a better term) appears some years before writers working in Castilian begin to bring over the world of the French Tristan, Arthur, and Lancelot into their own language. Ben Elazar’s Sahar and Kima is a very early example —perhaps the first example— of an authoctonous Iberian writer adapting Arthurian courtly discourse in an original composition.

Apart from scattered references to Arthurian material mentioned by trouabours during the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, the first Iberian narratives that bear significant Arthurian influence were those included in the Alfonsine histories, and these did not emerge until the mid- to late-thirteenth century, followed shortly thereafter by the book of Cavallero Cífar at the turn of the fourteenth. This means that Ben Elazar’s tale of Sahar and Kima would be one of the first Iberian texts to bear influence of chivalric courtly mores, some three quarters of a century before the first Castilian-language example. Reading Ben Elazar’s Hebrew text in the Romance language context gives us more data points to bring to our consideration of the development of Chivalric Romance in Spain. He introduces elements of the courtly attitudes and behaviors (as well as the physical surroundings and props) of the world of chivalric romance while substituting feats of poetic and rhetorical brilliance (the pen) for that of arms (the sword) as is the norm among heroes of French and Castilian chivalric novels. Jonathan Decter points up this distinction in his comparison between Ben Elazar’s book with the French and (considerably later) Castilian versions of the romance Floire et Blanchefloir. He concludes that “Ben Elazar does not create protagonists who embark upon chivalrous forest adventures or engage in tournaments to earn love and prestige. Yet his characters do embody the internal transformations charcteristic of Romance protagonists”.[3]

How does this synthesis between Arabic and French tradition play out in Ben Elazar’s text? Much of it has to do with the way in which he adapts the chivalric literary sensibility to the culture of the Sepharadim. If epic poetry such as the Cantar de Mio Cid or the Chanson de Roland tells the story of arms in service to feudal lord, the great innovation of chivalric romance was to press arms into the service of love. The feudal lord is displaced by the lady as the figure around which the action is oriented.

One might think that since Ben Elazar is using biblical Hebrew to tell his tale he might graft bits of Biblical feats of arms into the text to keep with the spirit of the genre. Maybe he would describe rhetorical heroics using the language of Biblical heroics, describing feats of arms in the same language the bible uses to describe the great military exploits of Samuel, Joshua, or even the against-all-odds battle between David and Goliath. He does not. The heroics of “Sahar and Kima” are courtly, but not chivalric. Since there is no Jewish class of warrior-nobles in Christian Iberia, the literature does not develop an inventory of imagery of the warrior hero. He is more indebted to the Arabic sense of rhetorical prowess featured in the medieval maqamat. While tenth- and eleventh-century Andalusi Hebrew poets —most notably the Granadan general Samuel Hanagid ibn Nagrela— wrote war poetry, the exemplary values of the poetry of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries are poetic excellence and religious piety. For Ben Elazar’s audience, the criteria for heroic values do not include feats of arms. Knights appear very infrequently in works by Sephardic and other Jewish authors, and when they do it is through translation from other languages or when the knight is a subject of parody. There is no autochtonous chivalric hero in Hebrew literature. Arms as a category of excellence is often replaced by letters, whether secular or sacred.

Let’s see for ourselves how this plays out in the text. The story begins with the young nobleman Sahar embarking from the port of Jaffa to Syria. There is a storm, and a shipwreck,[4] and our hero washes up on the shores of the land of Tsovah, perhaps Aleppo, but as in chivalric romance, the geography is fuzzy, fantastic, sort of irrelevant. He wanders into the city, where are all the girls and women of the place are stunned by his beauty. He stumbles into the palace, mistaking it for a synagogue, and is immediately detained and tied up by a pair of Ethiopian guards. When he recites an extemporaneous poem in protest, the crowd is floored by his poetic skill, and he is released. Kima hears this poem and falls in love with him, tossing him an apple inscribed with a poem and blowing him a kiss. Sahar is escorted out of the court and tossed into the street, forlorn and pining for Kima. She sends a servant with a letter professing her love for him. The servant leads him back to the palace where Sahar recites more poems of his love for Kima. After making him pass through a series of tests of his resolve and poetic prowess, Kima reveals herself to him, reproaching him for speaking openly of their love. There ensues a series of sung and written poetic exchanges, followed by a Bollywood-esque song and dance routine, and then a romantic all-nighter in the hortus conclusus of the palace garden. The couple is discovered by Kima’s father, the King, who threatens to kick Sahar out, but is so moved by laments of the young lovers that he agrees to allow them to marry. Shortly after the nuptials he dies of plague, conveniently passing his crown to Sahar and Kima, who live happily ever after — Vivieron felices y comieron perdices.[5]

What most distinguishes this narrative from other Hebrew (and Arabic) love stories of the middle ages is its particular brand of courtliness. It is the details of the behavior of the young lovers that really sets this story apart from its Hebrew analogues and places it closer to medieval Romances written in European vernaculars.

Not all of the details of the amores of the protagonists are specific to courtly love chez Capellanus. Much of the nuts and bolts of the amorous discourse is common to both Andalusi and Romance courtly traditions. Sahar falls in love with Kima from just hearing her voice.[6] He complains of her aloofness, constantly laments the mere possibility of being separated from her despite never really having been united with her. Ladies in waiting serve as go-betweens, carrying poetic messages between the lovers. Love letters and poems are not simply recited or written on paper. In one case Kima embroiders a poem to Sahar on a curtain behind which she hides from him.[7] And of course, the lovers complain of the impossibility of love and of the pain of separation.

However, there are many examples of amorous motifs and moves that are anomalous in Hebrew or and Arabic tradition and seem much more characteristic of vernacular courtly discourse. When Sahar sees Kima, he bows and kisses her hand.[8] He does this to avoid scandal in front of Kima’s ladies in waiting. I’ve never heard of anyone kissing anyone else’s hand in Hebrew. Her response to this advance is to wax lyrical about the value of chaste love, but she couches this idea in terms of class and in terms of an understood doctrine of courtly love. She explains to Sahar the ‘laws and customs of true lovers’ enforce chastity, while the sons of slaves yield to their passions. The narrator assures us that her words ennoble and edify Sahar, who then concedes to spend the entire night in the palace gardens with her, speaking of approved courtly topics but not actually touching physically.[9]

Kima repeatedly chastises Sahar to be chaste in his love for her. What is interesting about this is that she is not simply preoccupied with her honor, or with being haughty, which would be a perfectly recognizable posture for a courtly lover: la belle dame sans merci. No, Kima’s objection to physical love is on moral grounds. She explains that “to love with passion is a sin”[10] and does her best to stave off his physical advances. This manifestation of troubadouresque chaste love is particular to the vernacular literary tradition of Western Europe, and has no exact analogue in Arabic. Though the figure of the suffering, chaste lover is found in the verses of the so-called Udhri (‘pure’) poets,[11] and Ibn Hazm himself includes a chapter on “Submission” in The Dove’s Neck-Ring, the nature of Sahar’s devotions to Kima are more suggestive of the French Arthurian romances.

Ben Elazar is doing things here that no other Hebrew author in Latin Christendom has done. He is adopting the local conventions for representing idealized heterosexual love and blending these sensibilities with conventions, ideologies, and habits of expression drawn from the Andalusi and Biblical poetic traditions.[12]

In light of all this, if we compare “Sahar and Kima” to the Hebrew tradition alone, Ben Elazar looks like an outlier, a radical innovator. But when we look at him next to his colleagues writing in Romance, he looks like a writer who is simply up to date and writing the way people write in France and Spain at this time.  It is noteworthy that Ben Elazar would be writing something that looks like courtly romance in the early thirteenth century in Toledo, when such courtly subjects do not appear in Castilian until the turn of the fourteenth century.[13]

In order to properly situate “Sahar and Kima” in the discussion of Romance we need to distinguish the Courtly from the Chivalric. In his definition of Chivalric Romance, Cesar Segre emphasizes the relation of the characters to the courtly setting,[14] and while there is no doubt that Jews were players on the courtly scene, and occasionally went to war, there is relatively little of the Chivalric in the medieval Jewish experience.

Conclusion

In “Sahar and Kima,” the courtly chivalric ideal is displaced by a scholarly, but still courtly, ideal. While critics tend to characterize the tension in Romance between the clerkly and the knightly,[15] this dichotomy is obviated in the Jewish context. This stands to reason when we think about the social context of Jewish writers and readers in comparison to that of their Christian counterparts. The patrons of most Hebrew authors are not nobles, but notables, courtiers whose fortunes hinged on royal patronage and business affairs, but not feats of arms. We have in “Sahar and Kima,” a case of courtly ideals refracted through a diasporic experience, where courtly heroics are framed in terms of excellence with the pen, as opposed to the sword.[16] “Sahar and Kima” gives us an example of the practice of courtly romance in Castile well before the Castilan Crónica de Flores y Blancaflor intercalated in the Alfonsine Primera Crónica General, and some seventy years before the Cavallero Zifar.


Notes

[1] The first four chapters are literary debates between body and soul, poetry and prose, this poet and that one, and the pen and the sword. The next six are tales narrating various configurations of love interests, whether a boy and a man, a woman and two men, a man and two women, an old man, a man and a woman, or in the final chapter, a boy raised by a wolf. Decter has written studies of individual chapters. Decter, Jewish Iberian 164-74, “Sodomite,” “Landscapes.”

[2] On this transition and its impact on Sephardic writers see Decter, Iberian.

[3] Decter, Iberian 156.

[4] The shipwreck motif is resonant with the Libro del cavallero Cífar and with the Byzantine novel that is generally populated with shipwrecks. Thomas, Romances 16. Historians of the novel frequently include it in characteristic features of the Byzantine novel. In her discussion of Achilles Tatius’ Kleitophon and Leukippé, Margaret Doody refers to the “usual shipwreck.” Doody, True 54. Margaret Mullett writes that “on a textual level, shipwreck, adverse winds, calms, and pirate raids were expectedly unexpected — and essential to some travel genres as well as to the world view of Byzantium” Mullett, “Peril” 259. For an overview of the shipwreck in the Byzantine novel (both ancient and medieval), see Mullett, “Peril” 269-72.

[5] For a summary of the tale see Decter, Iberian 150-52.

[6] Ben Elazar, Stories 90, ll. 100-05. We find similar such examples of love-before-first-sight in Ibn Hazm’s The Dove’s Neck Ring, where he discusses those who fall in love by dreaming of their beloveds or by hearing others talk about them. Ibn Hazm, Neck-Ring 26-30, Tauq 28-29.

[7] Ben Elazar, Stories 94, ll. 214-17.

[8] Ben Elazar, Stories, 89-90, l. 90-91.

[9] Ben Elazar, Stories 98, ll. 330-31. What makes this so interesting is that it is all couched in Biblical Hebrew, with all the stock biblical imagery, phrasing, and allusions that implies. For example, Kima describes their amorous bond in the same terms that God explains the covenant to Noah. Much like his Christian counterparts, Ben Elazar speaks of love in religious language.. When Sahar speaks of the ‘laws and customs’ of courtly lovers he uses language drawn from Exodus, where Moses’ father-in-law Jethro is exhorting Moses to instruct the Israelites in the new laws received at Sinai (Exodus 18:20).

[10] Ben Elazar, Stories 92, ll. 155-58. According to Georges Duby, “courtly love was a game, an educational game. It was the exact counterpart of the tournament… As at the tournament, the young man was risking his life in the hope of improving himself, of enhancing his worth, his price, and also of taking, taking his pleasure, capturing his adversary after breaking down her defences, unseating her, knocking her down, and toppling her.” Duby, Love 57.

[11] On the Udhri poets, see Encyclopedia of Islam, “`Udhri.” Roger Allen’s capsule description of the love-sensibility of the Udhri corpus bears repeating in full: “The poet-lover places his beloved on a pedestal and worships her from afar. He is obsessed and tormented; he becomes debilitated, ill, and is doomed to a love-death. The beloved in turn becomes the personification of the ideal woman, a transcendental image of all that is beautiful and chaste. The cheek, the neck, the bosom, and, above all, the eyes —a mere glance— these are the cause of passion, longing, devastation, and exhaustion.” Allen, Introduction 105.

[12] Hayim Schirmann notes that the women in Ben Elazar’s stories have a more active role and are more agentive in the narrative (“Contes” 295). This squares with the idea that the chivalric romance developed in order to speak to the concerns of a courtly audience (and perhaps to courtly patronage) that included powerful women.

[13] Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Helga Bennett claim that in Spain, “courtly subjects do not begin to appear until 1300 in the genre of the Libros de caballería.” Gumbrecht and Bennett, “Literary Translation” 208.

[14] Segre, “Bakhtin” 28.

[15] Simon Gaunt writes that “the ubiquitous irony of romance is undoubtedly informed by the opposition between chevalrie and clergie that underscores many texts: a clerical narrator offers an ironic perspective on his chivalric hero.” Gaunt, “Romance” 47.  According to Barbara Fuchs, “their scholarly values of clergerie (clerkness) differ markedly from the aristocratic, heroic chevalrie (chivalry) of romance heroes’ Knights, that is, did not write romances.” Fuchs, Romance 40.

[16] Not just a lack of sovereignty, but speaks to a specific experience – it would be entirely possible to have a religious minority that traditionally bore arms for their king.

Works Cited

Allen, Roger. An Introduction to Arabic Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.

Ben Eleazar, Jacob. The Love Stories of Jacob Ben Eleazar (1170-1233?). Ed. Yonah David. Tel Aviv: Ramot Publishing, 1992. Print.

Decter, Jonathan. “A Hebrew ‘sodomite’ Tale from Thirteenth-century Toledo: Jacob Ben El‘azar’s Story of Sapir, Shapir, and Birsha.” Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies 3 (2011): 187–202. Web. 28 Nov. 2011.

—. “Changing Landscapes of the Hebrew Rhymed Prose Narrative.” Studies in Medieval Jewish Poetry: A Message Upon the Garden. Leiden: Brill, 2011. 55–67. Print.

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Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich, and Helga Bennett. “Literary Translation and Its Social Conditioning in the Middle Ages: Four Spanish Romance Texts of the 13th Century.” Yale French Studies 51 (1974): 205–222. Web. 23 Feb. 2010.

Ibn Hazm, Ali ibn Ahmad. El Collar De La Paloma. Vol. [3. Madrid: Alianza, 1971. Print.

—. Ṭawq Al-ḥamāmah Fī Al-ulfah Wa-al-ullāf. Ed. Muhammad Ibrahim Salim. al-Qāhirah: Maktabat Ibn Sīnā, 1993. Print.

Mullett, Margaret. “In Peril on the Sea: Travel Genres and the Unexpected.” Travel in the Byzantine World. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2002. 259–284. Print.

Schirmann, J. “Les Contes Rimées De Jacob Ben Eleazar De Toledo.” Etudes D’orientalisme Dédiées a La Mémoire De Lévi-Provençal. Paris, 1962. 285–297. Print.

Segre, Cesare. “What Bakhtin Left Unsaid.” Romance : Generic Transformation from Chrétien De Troyes to Cervantes. Ed. Kevin Brownlee & Marina Scordilis Brownlee. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1985. 23–46. Print.