Fiction, History, and the struggle for the Mediterranean in Tirant lo Blanch (Valencia, 1490)

Tirant lo Blanch, begun by Valencian knight Joanot de Martorell in the mid-fifteenth century and completed and published by Joan de Galba in Valencia in 1490, is the story of the knight Tirant, whose adventures span from England to North Africa to Constantinople, where he is eventually crowned Emperor. The novel, an Iberian adaptation of the Arthurian tradition, opens the Arthurian world to the Mediterranean political canvas of Martorell’s times. In it, Martorell and Galba give voice to Valencian dreams of renewed Christian expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa and fears of Ottoman incursion into the Western Mediterranean. The book is a fusion of Arthurian-inspired knightly ideals, nostalgia for the Crusading era, and the geopolitics of the late fifteenth century.

Guy of Warwick - British Library Royal MS 15 E vi f227r (detail) by The Talbot Master. Source: Wikipedia

Guy of Warwick – British Library Royal MS 15 E vi f227r (detail) by The Talbot Master. Source: Wikipedia

Book one of Tirant is a rescension of the Arthurian sequel Guy of Warwick, onto which the adventures of Tirant himself are skillfully welded. The melding of Arthurian and Mediterranean storyworlds is meant to legitimate Valencian knights within the chivalric culture of Western Christendom, while attending to the geopolitical concerns of Aragon, which lay in the Mediterranean world. This projection of current-day affairs onto the legendary British past is a way for Iberian writers to participate in the narrative culture of Western Christendom while tailoring the history-making function of romance to their own historical particularity. In the novel, Martorell and Galba project contemporary anxieties over the loss of Aragonese territories to Ottoman Expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean, and imagine a fictional Christian “Reconquest” of the former Byzantine capital at a time when Latin Christendom feared Ottoman incursion into the West.

The Romance has always served a para-historiographical function, filling in the gaps and explaining the inconsistencies in the historical record. In Marina Brownlee’s words, romance is “a response to an ever-changing historico-political configuration”(Brownlee 109). As such, it is no surprise that a French romance written in the late twelfth century should differ significantly from one written in Valencia in the late fifteenth. It is also clear that medievals did not have the same expectation of historical objectivity or verisimilitude that we expect today. Barbara Fuchs writes that the romance is not intended to reflect the historical record as does historiographical writing. It has, she writes “a different purchase on the truth” (Fuchs 103).

At the same time, for a twelfth-century audience, a chronicle and a Romance were not altogether different animals, but rather were situated on a spectrum that ranged from fantasy to court history. The current term “historical fiction” might have well applied equally well to the romance as to the chronicle. By the end of the fifteenth century, there are chronicles containing brazenly fictional episodes, such as the fifteenth-century Crónica sarracina, and romances with perfectly historical content, such as Tirant. In short, historical truth claims were not limited to the chronicle but were perfectly acceptable in a narrative fiction.

One of the roles of medieval Iberian fiction is political and spiritual wish fulfillment. It is a record not so much of what has happened but what you wish would happen, if only. Several Medieval Iberian romances fantasize about a Christian East, whether neo-Byzatine, Crusder state, or a mix of the two. This fantasy is sometimes conflated with the domestic fantasy of a Christian al-Andalus or Maghreb. Tirant achieves all of these, knitting together preoccupations with political Islam past and current, domestic and global.

Saracens. Erhard Reuwich - Bernhard von Breidenbach: Peregrinatio in terram sanctam. (1486) (Source: Wikipedia)

Saracens. Erhard Reuwich – Bernhard von Breidenbach: Peregrinatio in terram sanctam. (1486) (Source: Wikipedia)

Martorell begins by portraying an Arthurian Britain under siege by the Saracen king of the Canary Islands. Here Martorell fuses the literary imaginary of Western Latin chivalry with that of Martorell’s own time and place. Knights in Martorell’s time patterned their behavior after representations of chivalry in romances (Fallows 263–264) The practice of chivalry had passed from battlefield to tournament, and the aesthetics of chivalry were therefore shaped more by ritual tradition and ideology and less by military exigency. It was, in his day, an institution whose value was more symbolic than strategic.

Aragonese expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean

The Crown of Aragon in 1441 (source: Wikipedia)

The Crown of Aragon in 1441 (source: Wikipedia)

The fictional world of Tirant is Aragonese as opposed to Castilian. The Crown of Aragon had always looked to the Mediterranean, and was home to important port cities such as Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, and Valencia. Barcelona, in its maritime heyday, was known as the “Queen of the Sea,” and Mallorca had long been an important trade center and military base. In fact, the Crown of Aragon during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had come to control a significant maritime Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean, an empire that, like the Venetian and the Genoese projects, was fueled far more by commercial interests than by crusading zeal. The crown and nobility themselves engaged directly in trade in ways that were practically unthinkable in the Castilian context (Hillgarth 51; Lowe 3).

Arms of Valencia (source: Wikipedia)

Arms of Valencia

By the time Tirant appeared in the late fifteenth century, Valencia had superseded Barcelona as the most important Iberian Mediterranean port. There the products of all Spain were brought to the Mediterranean market, and goods from around the world entered Spain. This economic bonanza, as it often does, inspired an impressive artistic life, and ushered in what literary historians refer to as the Segle d’or or Golden Age of Valencian literature, which preceded the Castilian Siglo de Oro by a century.

However, despite the boom economy and political importance of Valencia in the fifteenth century, the Crown of Aragon was no longer the great maritime power it had been in the preceding centuries. While the medieval Catalan chroniclers such as King Jaume I, Ramon Muntaner, and Bernat Desclot were eyewitnesses to the apex of Aragonese power, in Tirant lo Blanch, Martorell and Galba gives voice to a nostalgia for this lost power in Tirant, while making frequent use of material from the these chronicles.    In a way Tirant is a historical-fictional fantasy of what the Aragonese expansion in the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean might have been if the Ottoman Empire had not come to dominate the region (Piera 53).

Accession of Mehmed II in Edirne, 1451 depicted in a 1583 painting housed in the Topkapi Palace Museum (Hazine 1523, Hüner-name) (source: Wikipedia)

Accession of Mehmed II in Edirne, 1451 depicted in a 1583 painting housed in the Topkapi Palace Museum (Hazine 1523, Hüner-name) (source: Wikipedia)

This literary expansionist fantasy is fueled both by historical regret at the loss of Aragonese and Byzantine holdings in the Eastern mediterranean in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but also by the contemporary concerns of the war with Granada in the Iberian south and Ottoman expansion in the East. The loss of Constantinople to Mehmet II (1451-1481) in 1453 was still felt in Western Europe, who looked on lamely as Mehmet II continued to expand his Empire, soon conquering all of Anatolia, and the Balkans. Toward the end of his reign he even staged successful campaigns in the Western Mediterranean, taking and holding the Italian city of Otranto in 1481, only nine years before Tirant’s publication (Giráldez 24). One chronicle of the Catholic Monarchs calls the fall of Otranto a “horrible plague.” (Bernáldez).

These events only intensified Latin Christendom’s nostalgia for Crusade and a Christian East, and crusading literary models continued to be pressed into contemporary service in order to cope with anxieties over a Mediterranean that was increasingly under Muslim control, even as Christian Iberian monarchs were pushing to rid their own land of Muslim political power. Such fears would be further vindicated under Suleiman the Magnificent, who expanded imperial holdings to include nearly all the locations featured in Galba’s continuation (Tlemcen, Alexandria, and the former Crusader states in the Levant).

Constantinople played an important role in this symbolic game of chess, as the former Byzantine capital and modern legacy of Roman imperial power. Curiously, as Paloma Díaz Mas points out, the Iberian historiography of the time is nearly silent on the fall of Constantinople (Díaz Mas 343–44). Luckily, the romance as ever jumps in to exploit the silence. Tirant’s eventual ascent to the Byzantine throne is a vivid vindication of Christian interests in the region, one rooted in history if not exactly respectful of the historical record.

Islam in Tirant

In Martorell’s day, Granada had been reduced to a totally dependent client state of Castile; the Islamic threat to Christendom now came from the Ottoman Eastern Mediterranean. Tirant, like the crusader knights of the golden era of the chivalric romance, answers the call (Rubiera Mata 14).


The Valencian Friar  Vincent Ferrer Preaching, Pedro Rodríguez de Miranda ca. 1750 (Source: Wikipedia)

The Valencian Friar Vincent Ferrer Preaching, Pedro Rodríguez de Miranda ca. 1750 (Source: Wikipedia)

Tirant’s defense of Christianity is both military and proselytic, and he has help. After the conversion of the Ethiopian King Escariano, a Valencian friar, just back from ransoming Christian captives in North Africa, helps Tirant baptize King Escariano and Queen Emeraldine’s subjects. In a short few days the text relates that “he set 44,327 infidels on the path to salvation” (Martorell and Galba 486).

Earlier romances by Christian Iberian authors, such as the Libro del Caballero Zifar prominently feature conversion scenes as a part of their chivalric world. These representations are a direct reflection of historical reality. Less than ten years after the publication of Tirant this is precisely what happened in Spain in the very name of defending Christianity: the mass expulsion and conversion of the Peninsula’s Jews, and a decade later, the mass conversion of the Peninsula’s Muslims. History very clearly demonstrates that the dream of mass conversion novelized in Tirant is less a fantasy than a rehearsal.

In fact, the fictional mass conversions of the North African Saracens carried out by Tirant’s Valencian friar comes with a warning about the social price of mass conversions, with specific reference to the city of Valencia in the future, which we can assume refers to the time of Martorell and Galba:

In the future, Valencia’s wickedness will be the cause of its downfall, for it will be populated by nations of cursed seed and men will come to distrust their own fathers and brothers. According to Elias, it will have to bear three scourges: Jews, Saracens, and Moorish converts. (Martorell and Galba 486)

Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. This bit of prophecy from the aptly named friar Elias, (the Greek form of Elijah) is spot on. Already by 1490 there was a considerable class of new converts from Judaism, the conversos, whose existence was causing no little social and economic anxiety among the well-to-do of Valencia. The question of the unconverted Jews and Muslims likewise was coming to a head in the Spain of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel, and would, as we all know, culminate in just two short years in the expulsion of the kingdom’s Jews, shortly followed by the forcible yet very superficial conversion of Valencia’s sizeable Muslim population.

In conclusion, Tirant lo Blanch fuses domestic and geopolitical concerns about Eastern conquest and domestic crusade and conversion from the Golden Era of French chivalric novels with those of Martorell’s fifteenth-century Valencia. The novel reimagines the chivalric of the Arthurian world in a specifically late-medieval Valencian key, both projecting local concerns onto the Arthurian storyworld and infusing current reality with Arthurian chivalric values. In this world, Moors attack England, the hero rules over a Byzantine Constantinople, and a wildly successful Valencian proselyte predicts the downfall of his hometown to his own successful endeavors to convert local Jews and Muslims. Tirant is emblematic of the power of fiction to represent the present by reimagining the past.

Works Cited

  • Bernáldez, Andrés. Memorias del Reinado de los Reyes Católicos,. Madrid: Real Academia de la Historia, 1962. Print.
  • Brownlee, Marina. “Iconicity, Romance and History in the Crónica Sarracina.” diacritics 36.3-4 (2006): 119–130. Project MUSE. Web. 23 Feb. 2010.
  • Díaz Mas, Paloma. “El eco de la caída de Constantinopla en las literaturas hispánicas.” Constantinopla 1453: Mitos y realidades. Ed. Pedro Bádenas de la Peña and Inmaculada Pérez Martín. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, 2003. 318–349. Print.
  • Fallows, Noel. Jousting in Medieval and Renaissance Iberia. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2010. Print.
  • Fuchs, Barbara. Romance. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
  • Giráldez, Susan. Las Sergas de Esplandián y la España de Los Reyes Católicos. New York: P. Lang, 2003. Print.
  • Hillgarth, Jocelyn. The Problem of a Catalan Mediterranean Empire, 1229-1327. London: Longman, 1975. Print.
  • Lowe, Alfonso. The Catalan Vengeance. London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1972. Print.
  • Martorell, Joanot, and Joan de Galba. Tirant Lo Blanch. Trans. David H. Rosenthal. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1984. Print.
  • Piera, Montserrat. “Tirant Lo Blanc: Rehistoricizing the ‘Other’ Reconquista.” Tirant Lo Blanc: New Approaches. Ed. Arthur Terry. London, England: Tamesis, 1999. 45–58. Print.
  • Riquer, Martí de. “Joanot Martorell i el Tirant lo Blanc.” Tirant lo Blanc. Vol. 1. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1970. 7–94. Print.
  • Rubiera Mata, María Jesús. Tirant contra el Islam. Alicante: Ediciones Aitana, 1993. Print.

This post is based on a paper I gave at the 2015 Medieval Association of the Pacific, at University of Nevada, Reno. Thanks to Sharon Kinoshita for organizing the panel on Medieval Mediterranean Studies.

Translation in Diaspora: the Hebrew Amadís de Gaula

In a previous entry, I discussed the literary and cultural contexts of Jacob Algaba’s 1541 Hebrew translation of Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s 1508 chivalric novel, Amadís de Gaula. Here I would like to talk more directly about the text of the translation itself, in order to show what Algaba’s translation does as a translation made by and for members of a culture in diaspora.

Amadís de Gaula is a chivalric romance that became a bestseller and major entertainment franchise in sixteenth-century Spain. In 1508 Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo published what would be the first of a multiple-volume series of the adventures of Amadis of Gaul and his numerous successors. It spawned a wildly successful (and widely critcized) genre of popular novel that famously met its demise at the hands of Miguel de Cervantes, who mercilessly parodied the books in the figure of Don Quijote. The novel was perhaps the most important exemplar of the Spanish chivalric imagination, an iconic brand or franchise that was instantly recognizable as Spanish. It was a natural favorite for Sephardic Jews who, while living in Constantinople, Salonika, or elsewhere, spoke Spanish and still identified strongly with the vernacular culture of their land of origin. Its reception by Sephardic Jews and its translation into Hebrew offers us a glimpse into the literary practices of the Sephardic diaspora. The Hebrew Amadís can help us to better understand the diasporic cultural production of the Sephardim.

And when we say ‘diaspora,’ what do we mean? I’ve written in another post on the idea of ‘double diaspora,’ that the Sephardim (Spanish Jews) experienced not only the diaspora from their Biblical homeland, which I will call ‘Zion’ but also a diaspora from Sefarad (Spain). They experienced —and gave voice to— the separation from their ancestral land of Sefarad in terms both real and symbolic, and their cultural production in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere in the Sephardic diaspora should be understood in light of this fact.

Why does this matter when we are studying the cultural significance of a translation? It matters because in doing so we are expanding the discussion of Jewish diaspora. First-wave modern theorists of diaspora writing in the 1970s and 1980s argued that the cultural imagination of diasporic populations vacillate between two geographical territories, constantly mediating between the symbolic value of their homeland and the lived reality of their current hostland. Later theorists of more recent diasporas have criticized this ‘dual-territorial’ model. Sudesh Mishra, one of the harshest critics of this approach, argues that it cannot address the complexities of the modern diasporas of Indian, African, Chinese, and other populations.

This discussion has prompted historians and theorists of Jewish diaspora take a second look at how they think about Jewish history and culture in diaspora. The concept of ‘double diaspora’ attempts to account for some of this complexity by studying the cultural production of the Sephardim in and beyond Spain as giving voice to two overlaid layers of diaspora that interact, and in the words of Jonathan Boyarin, “echo back and forth” in the Sephardic cultural imagination.

Ottoman Jewish print culture

Before examining the text of the translation itself it is worth considering Algaba’s Hebrew Amadís in the context of the Hebrew print culture and of the Ottoman Jewish society of the times. The Hebrew print industry was active in Spain from the late fifteenth century, and presses in Spain produced a great number of religious works (Bibles, Talmuds, Biblical commentaries, liturgical and moralistic texts, etc.) but also volumes of philosophy, science, and what we might call secular prose such as histories and fiction. In the early sixteenth century Hebrew printing continued to flourish first in Italy and then in Ottoman cities such as Salonika, Adrianopole, and Constantinople.

For most of the sixteenth century nearly all titles with any discernible Jewish content were published in Hebrew (in Salonika printers brought out a few titles in Judeo-Spanish, and Italian printers published some in Italian or in both Italian and Hebrew) but for the most part Hebrew had pride of place as the prestige language of the Jewish press. However, Jewish printers in Italy and the Ottoman Empire were not culturally isolated or closed to the vernacular and learned languages of their non-Jewish neighbors. On the contrary, the itinerant printer Gershon Soncino (who moved his press a number of times to various locations in Italy and the Ottoman Empire) published a number of titles for Christian patrons in Italian, Greek, and Latin. Apparently, the Greek vernacular culture of the Ottoman Romaniote Jews did not have sufficient caché to warrant repackaging in Hebrew. Constantinople Jews were not commonly very proficient in Turkish in the sixteenth century, and in any event the Ottomans did not license Turkish-language printing until the mid-eighteenth century, so that option was not on the table for Soncino.

In Ottoman Jewish society, Hebrew was the academic and religious lingua franca of a number of different ethnic groups who had settled in Ottoman cities. While Salonika in the sixteenth century was overwhelmingly Sephardic, the indigenous Greek-Speaking Romaniote Jews had significant communities in the cities and were joined by Ashkenazi Jews from Western and Eastern Europe as well as some Mizrahi (Eastern) Jews from the Arabic, Persian, and Turkic-speaking areas of the Ottoman Empire and beyond. But by their numbers, their superior cultural level, and their considerable network of commercial and diplomatic contacts, the Sephardim quickly emerged as the prestige subculture of Ottoman Jewry. This, along with the fact that Sephardim conversant in Spanish would have no need of a Hebrew translation in order to read Amadís, suggests that the translation was made either for Greek-speaking (but Hebrew-reading) Romaniote Jews in Ottoman lands or perhaps for non-Spanish-speaking Jewish readers in any country that Algaba’s edition might eventually reach. At this time Jewish merchants, diplomats, and scholars traveled widely throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. While he have no documentary evidence of the reception of Algaba’s translation, it is not unreasonable to think that copies may have ended up in the hands of readers in Cairo, Tunis, Venice, Troyes, or Cochin for that matter.

Sephardic culture (in the broad sense) had long history of prestige in the East, going back to Maimonides, who retained the sobriquet ‘Ha-Sefardí’ long after leaving his native Cordoba. The Ottoman Sephardim likewise represented this prestige, expressed both in their Spanish vernacular culture and in the wealth and influence they wielded. Accordingly, the Sephardic community attracted and assimilated members from the other groups, and soon was the dominant ethnic culture in Ottoman Jewish society. As we read Algaba’s text we should keep two things in mind: he was in all likelihood writing for non-Sephardic Jews, and he was consciously representing Sephardic culture to them in choosing to translate a Spanish (European) novel, a genre that had yet to be introduced to Hebrew.

The task of Algaba’s Amadís

Let us how turn to the text and see how Algaba worked with Montalvo’s text to appeal to Jewish audiences and (it must be said) to sell copies of his translation. One common strategy of Algaba is to de-Christianize the text, removing references that might offend Jewish sensibilities. It is noteworthy that in most of these cases he avoids substituting specifically Jewish terms or concepts. Algaba’s Amadís is the first major narrative work in a register of Hebrew that is largely free of the dense weave of clever Biblical and rabbinical allusions that was characteristic of nearly every other work of Hebrew prose being published at the time (Judah al-Harizi’s Tahkemoni, Judah ibn Shabbetay’s Offering of Judah, Vidal Benvenist’s Tale of Efer and Dina, etc.)

The Anchorite, by Teodor Axentowicz (1859–1938)

In Algaba’s translation, priests become laymen, oaths are secularized, and moralizing digressions (to which Montalvo was famously inclined) are simply omitted. Most of these examples are superficial and predictable. When Amadís exclaims “¡Sancta María!” Algaba substitutes ‘Long live my Lord the King!’ Montalvo has the Queen lead Amadís into her “capilla” (chapel), which Algaba renders as “cámara” (chamber). Elsewhere, Amadís comes upon a wounded knight in the road who asks to be taken to an “hermitaño” (Anchorite) who might ‘tend to his soul,’ which Algaba renders as ‘someone who might heal me.’

Occasionally Algaba changes the moral valence of a term that is not specifically Christian but that might have been unseemly to Montalvo’s target readership. Montalvo describes the inaugural sexual encounter between Amadís and Oriana, for example, as “vicio y plazer” (‘vice and pleasure’), which Algaba renders as ‘delight and happiness.’ When Amadís comes upon a damsel who has been sexually assaulted, in Montalvo’s version she relates that she was “escarnecida” (‘dishonored’) by her attacker, while Algaba’s damsel simply says: “he lay with me.”

Most of the examples of Algaba’s de-christianization of the text are similarly routine; but some merit interpretation. When King Languines orders a traitorous woman burnt to death, Algaba instead has her thrown to her death from a high tower. His reluctance to depict her being burned may be out of respect to victims of the Spanish Inquisition. His alternative may be dawn from Josephus: in the Sefer Yosippon, the medieval Hebrew translation of Josephus’ history, Jezebel meets a similar fate as punishment for her sins.

Despite his secularizing tendency, there are some moments in which he (for lack of a better, less-charged term) ‘Judaizes’ the text, inserting references to Jewish texts, cultural concepts, and observances. A few of these replace Christian references, but many appear to be spontaneous, whether out of a desire to appeal to his audience or, occasionally, for ironic effect.  When Amadís’ step-brother Galaor bids farewell to the giant who raised him on a remote island, the giant asks “que le huviesse memoria” (‘that he remember him’); in the Hebrew takes a more spiritual turn and asks that ‘he not be forgotten from his prayers.’

In particularly playful rabbinical allusion, Amadís deals his enemy a crippling blow to the thigh. In addition to the direct translation for thigh (yareakh) Algaba adds a technical term drawn from the rabbinic discourse on koshering animal carcasses: maqom tsomet hagidin, ‘the place where the tendons come together.’ This is Algaba’s ironic response to the episode in Genesis where the angel, tired of wrestling with Jacob all night long, finally “wrenched Jacob’s hip at the socket” (32: 26). The Biblical text then explains “that is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip [i.e. sirloin, top loin, etc.], since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle” (32:33). Where the Biblical texts derives its dietary ruling from the battle between Jacob and the angel, Algaba playfully writes the language of dietary restriction back into the battle between Amadís and his opponent.

Sephardic chivalry and courtly discourse

Perhaps most significant for our discussion is Algaba’s interpretation of Montalvo’s frequent references to the chivalric and courtly cultural world represented in Amadís. It stands to reason that non-Sephardic Jews, who had never lived in Christian Europe would be unfamiliar with the institutions and practices of chivalry that form the fabric of the social world of Amadís. You cannot, of course, trade on foreign caché that is totally incomprehensible to your audience.  To this end Algaba tailors Montalvo’s references to the institutions of chivalry, social conventions, and courtly practices that may have fallen outside the experience of his non-Sephardic readers. As in the examples of de-Christianization, some such examples are superficial, but telling of differences of expectations of what ‘courtly’ or ‘chivalric’ might mean to non-Sephardic, Jewish audiences.

A character named ‘la doncella de la guirnalda’ (‘the damsel of the garland’), so named because she always wore a garland of flowers to accentuate her beautiful hair, becomes in Algaba’s version the ‘damsel of the crown,’ an accessory that ostensibly made more sense to the Ottoman readers to whom a garland of flowers might have seemed more rustic than idyllic. Algaba often renders declarations couched in elevated courtly language (which abound), in Biblical Hebrew, which better emphasizes their high register. When Amadís declares “¡muerto soy de corazón!” (I shall die of heartbreak!), Algaba renders mah anokhi, she-nitraf libi! (‘What will become of me, for my heart is torn asunder!’), deploying the rarer first-person pronoun anokhi found in the Hebrew Bible. When a rival knight mocks Amadís as unworthy to love Oriana, challenges Amadís to “tell me who she is, so that I may love her.” Algaba puts into his mouth the instantly recognizable words of the Song of Songs (6:10): haged na li mi ha-nishkafa-kemo shahar (‘who is she that shines through like the dawn’). Again Algaba shows a bit of playfulness in his ironic deployment of biblical language, emphasizing the intensity of the discussion between Amadís and his rival in a way that makes sense to his audience.

Algaba translates some of the specific conventions and practices of Spain’s chivalric culture into more familiar, general terms. When Amadís swears an oath of service to Helisenda, he does so “en esta cruz y espada con que la orden de cavallería recebí” (‘upon this cross and sword which I received with the Order of Chivalry’), referencing a specifically Christian, chivalric practice of swearing upon a sword planted point down so that the handle and guard resemble a cross. The reference to the Order of Chivalry would most likely be opaque, and swearing on the cross unacceptable to a Jewish audience. Algaba has him swear simply upon his sword as a kind of shorthand. When Helisena appeals to the honor of King Perión’s squire, she asks him if he is an hidalgo (nobleman of low rank); by this she means ‘are you an honorable individual with whom I can trust my secret?’ Algaba preserves the equation of high birth and good moral conduct implied by the word hidalgo but his Helisena asks the squire ‘who are you and your family? Are they high born? (me`olah, literally ‘superior’ or ‘fine’).

Cárcel de amor, Barcelona, Joan Rosembach 1493

Very occasionally, Algaba demonstrates his familiarity with courtly and chivalric discourse by introducing elements of them into the Hebrew when they are absent from the Spanish. In one such example, Amadís is complaining to Oriana about the difficulty of deferring his sexual desire for her. His complaint is couched in standard language of the courtly lover. He claims it is an impossible task, because his “juizio no puede resistir aquellos mortales deseos de quien cruelmente es atormentado” (‘better judgment cannot resist those mortal desires by which it is cruelly tormented’). What is interesting is that Algaba’s Hebrew rendering introduces a different trope of the courtly lover, one that is also characteristic of Montalvo’s day but that is absent from prior Hebrew tradition. He writes: “my heart is bound and tied in iron chains,” an image very much consistent with the late medieval Western European poetic convention of love as a form of slavery or imprisonment (Spanish books on amorous topics of the late fifteenth century included Siervo libre de amorFree Slave of Love’ and Cárcel de amor Prison of Love). Here Algaba proves himself a knowledgeable reader of Spanish tradition who actively seeks to reconcile, integrate, and mediate between Hebrew and Spanish literary traditions. His insertion of this courtly trope speaks to his biculturality and more importantly to his role of translator mediating between diasporic communities, the Sephardim who represented the prestige of European courtly culture, and the Greek- and Arabic-speaking Jews who were his target audience.


Algaba’s translation project was ultimately a commercial failure. His translation of the first book of Montalvo’s Amadís was of very low quality, and for whatever reason did not appear to have stimulated demand for subsequent installments. We have no concrete data to explain this fact, but we may speculate. Perhaps the time had not yet come for ‘light literature’ in Hebrew. Algaba’s Amadís was certainly alone in that respect: it is the only Hebrew edition of its times of a popular novel. The other secular works that were published in the sixteenth century were more ‘serious’ literature: difficult rhyming prose narratives that were showy displays of erudition and arcana, histories of Jewish persecutions or of the regimes that persecuted them, and a smattering of philosphical and scientific works. Algaba’s test balloon novel was an aberration, and the European novel would not make a significant début in Hebrew until the eighteenth century. Nonetheless, Algaba’s Amadís does tell us a great deal about how he sought to represent Sephardic popular culture to the other communities of the Jewish diaspora in the Ottoman Empire of his day. His adaptation of Montalvo’s iconic work for a non-Sephardic Jewish audience is an illuminating example of how Sephardim chose to articulate their relationship with the land from which they found themselves in a second, Sephardic diaspora.

Works cited

  • Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999. Print.
  • Boyarin, Jonathan. Personal communication. 3 Oct 1993. Cited in Clifford, James. “Diasporas.” Cultural Anthropology 9.3 (1994): 302-338, 305.
  • Mishra, Sudesh. Diaspora criticism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.
  • Rodríguez de Montalvo, Garci. Amadís de Gaula. Ed. Juan Manuel Cacho Blecua. Madrid: Cátedra, 1996.
  • —. ʻAlilot ha-abir. Trans. Jacob Algaba. Ed. Tzvi Malachi. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University Press, 1981. Print.

This post is based on a paper I gave at the 2012 Modern Langages Association Convention in Seattle, session #260, “From Spain to Sephardic Culture, Language, Literature, and Self-Identity.” You can see the slides here.