Ibero-Mediterranean Romance, or, what we talk about when we talk about the chivalric romance in Spain

Konrad von Limpurg as a knight being armed by his lady in the Codex Manesse (early 14th century)  Source: Wikipedia

Konrad von Limpurg as a knight being armed by his lady in the Codex Manesse (early 14th century) Source: Wikipedia

Spanish literary history explains the chivalric novel in Spain as a result of the transmission of Arthurian legends developed into prose romances by French writers in the twelfth centuries and imitated by Iberian writers in subsequent centuries. But romance was really more of a Mediterranean phenomenon. Authors working in Greek, Arabic, and various Romance languages all contributed to the development of what we might call the medieval Mediterranean romance during this period. Thus the tradition of chivalric romances of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that became so popular in the early age of print in Iberia and beyond, such as Tirant lo Blanch and Amadís de Gaula, were part of a pan-Mediterranean culture of romance. In this textual tradition, the lands of the Mediterranean were the stage for the romantic and military exploits of heroes who fought in the name of their beloveds, their kings, and their god. These heroes championed the causes of Islam, Byzantium, and Latin Christendom variously. In the final analysis they championed our need to take a messy, confusing, dangerous world, and have it all make sense, with cut and dried moral values and clear winners and losers.

The "ceremonial" South Pole, atAmundsen–Scott Station Source: Wikipedia

The “ceremonial” South Pole, atAmundsen–Scott Station Source: Wikipedia

Arguing over what is chivalric romance and what is not is like arguing over which country can claim Antarctica. It is a political distinction that rests on a narrative which ultimately, like national historiographies, is a fiction. We know very well that literary histories are political instruments that respond to ideologies that may have little or nothing to do with those that informed the authors, works, and aesthetics they pretend to represent. The resulting narratives distort the facts.

Is she or isn't she?

Is she or isn’t she?

An excellent example is the argument over the origins of the novel and its implications for the study of the so-called chivalric novel. Whether or not the Quijote or Madame Bovary or Middlemarch or The Golden Ass was the first novel is an anachronizing tautology. If it important to establish, for example, that Amadís de Gaula (1507) is the first Spanish chivalric novel (and I am not arguing that it is), then anything that resembles Amadis is also a chivalric novel, and anything that does not was something else, and perhaps less worthy of our attention when we talk about chivalric romance. If it is the year 1300, and Amadis is still over two hundred years in the future, this approach tells us nothing about the literary culture of 1300, a little about that of 1507, and a whole lot about 2015. If Amadis is the yardstick, what do we do with Flores y Blancaflor (ca. 1300), or Cavallero Zifar (ca. 1300), for example? They do not look precisely like Amadís de Gaula, and so are not in the club. I do not say this because I have a personal investment in the recognition of all non-chivalric prose fiction adventure novels, but because I believe we are doing ourselves a disservice by letting these categories determine our approach to the sources.

Pal, you're no Amadis de Gaula

Pal, you’re no Amadis de Gaula

In this frame, the study of all prose fiction narrative involving a hero bearing arms and mounted on a horse is judged against Amadis, and therefore against certain canonical French romances thought (by a tradition of criticism that has more to do with France and England than with, for example, fourteenth-century Valencia, Zaragoza, or Granada) to be most important in contributing to Amadís and therefore to the genre of chivalric romance, and therefore more prestigious, more authentic, and ultimately a more relevant expression of literary art than other works of prose fiction narrative in which armed horsemen figure prominently. In this game, any work deemed to prefigure Amadís and therefore the Arthurian romance (and really we are talking about those of Chrétien de Troyes) counts, and those works that deviate significantly from this metric do not.

Antarah and Abla depicted on a 19th-century Egyptian tattooing pattern Source: Wikipedia

Antarah and Abla depicted on a 19th-century Egyptian tattooing pattern Source: Wikipedia

This story of ‘influence’ lets us wall away Arthurian Romance from its Byzantine and Arabic counterparts. Historians can then say that Tirant lo Blanch, for example, is essentially Arthurian with some influence of the Byzantine novel. But what if it that is not how it works? What if affinity and similarity are not the result of ‘influence’ but of something more like ‘co-evolution’ or ‘siblinglry,’ that what we perceive as texts belonging to two or more separate families are really litter mates whose affinity is due not to the ‘influence’ of one on another, but of a shared experience that goes beyond the readings that certain authors had in common. If we are going to theorize the romance in Iberia, let’s use the Mediterranean, not the Atlantic, as the frame of reference.

Piri Reis map of Europe and the Mediterranean Sea" by Piri Reis (circa 1467 - circa 1554) - Library of Istanbul University. No:6605. Source: Wikimedia

Piri Reis map of Europe and the Mediterranean Sea” by Piri Reis (circa 1467 – circa 1554) – Library of Istanbul University. No:6605. Source: Wikimedia

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, different strands of literary narrative practice came together to produce a corpus of prose fiction adventure novels that were in large part based on epic traditions as they had been received by current historiography. Chroniclers had been making ample use of cantares de gesta from the Peninsula and beyond in the Christian kingdoms of Iberia and elsewhere. These prosifications of what could only have been considered histories spurred further novelizations of local epic traditions in which the fictional world represented was that of the court where the historiographers worked. These narratives, shaped and transmitted in more popular contexts, were then further novelized by courtly writers whose goal was to shift the symbolic center of the narrative from battlefield to court.

In this new prose fiction, which dealt at length on the amorous and political intrigues of its protagonists and less on exhaustive descriptions of massive battles waged between nations, the poetic forms of courtly poets and the prosaic practice of court historiographers merged. In the case of Arabic (and to a lesser extent in French and in Spanish), the new narrative genres featured poetry interspersed directly within the narrative compositions. But largely it was the sensibilities, the affectations, and to a certain extent the language of love that authors novelized in the new fictions, happily chronicling the exploits of protagonists need not be presented as historical.

The language of love (Bayad wa-Riyad, late 13th c. Granada) Source: Wikipedia

The language of love (Bayad wa-Riyad, late 13th c. Granada) Source: Wikipedia

If we widen the lens beyond the transpyrennean route that brought Arthurian material to the Iberian Peninsula, and reframe the definition of the textual practice in question, a different picture begins to emerge. In this one, writers around the Mediterranean move from chronicle and poetry to courtly prose fiction narratives that combine elements of both while giving expression to courtly values that span correct conduct, military skill (but not necessarily large scale military conflict). If the chronicle gives narrative form to the events that transpire during the reign of a given monarch or a given royal house, the romance gives narrative form to the social and political ideals of the political community that supports the royal power. This is true whether the backdrop is Rome, England, France, or elsewhere. This functional rather than genetic description of the romance authorizes us to look beyond the usual suspects in putting together a picture of how Iberian romances (however we define them) fit into the wider frame of literary practice in the medieval mediterranean.

If we just stick to prose fiction written about knights and their adventures, we have an interesting group of narratives that emerge in the thirteenth century in the Mediterranean. Sharon Kinoshita introduces this problem in a recent article in PMLA*  in which she brings ‘to light’ a handful of what we might call romances written in non-French areas of the Mediterranean such as Anatolia, Byzantium, and Egypt. These narratives all share key features with French and Spanish romances dealing with what I will call the funky three: Rome, Britain, and France. They are the Turkish Düstürname, (‘Tale of Dustur’), the Byzantine Digenis Akritas (‘Two-blooded Border Hero’), and the Arabic Sirat Antar (‘Tale of Antar’). To these, I would add the Andalusi Ziyad ibn `Amir al-Quinani. Taking away the mandatory Arthurian point of reference, these heroes and the tales that describe their adventures all perform similar cultural work: they adapt epic traditions, sometimes quite loosely, to the task of representing courtly ideals in the military, political, and romantic spheres.

In sum, and following Kinoshita’s lead, I am proposing a new framework for the study of the medieval Mediterranean adventure novel in Iberia that does not draw a straight line between Chrétien de Troyes and the Quijote via Amadis. Rather, I propose a field of inquiry that spans the Mediterranean and focuses on the co-evolution of courtly prose narrative fiction as a regional expression of a regional courtly culture of elites. These courtly elites, despite linguistic and religious differences, shared a common experience that found expression in the fictional tales of warriors and ladies whose adventures were the canvas on which authors gave voice to the political, social, and religious concerns of the day.

* Kinoshita, Sharon. “Medieval Mediterranean Literature.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 124.2 (2009): 600–608.

This post is a preliminary version of a paper I’m giving at the 2015 MLA in Vancouver BC, in session 12a, “Medieval Literary Theory: Europe and Beyond.” Thanks to Prof. Jill Ross (U Toronto) for organizing the session.

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.