The Other Averroism: The Maimonidean Controversy and The Copenhagen Maimonides

Copenhagen Maimonides f7, Introduction of translator Samuel ibn Tibbon

Copenhagen Maimonides f7, Introduction of translator Samuel ibn Tibbon

As a diasporic civilization, Judaism is a moveable world in itself. Heinrich Heine famously quipped that the Torah is a portable homeland, and so Jewish culture provides us with an excellent example of how texts, artifacts, and ideas travel and are transformed in different contexts.

The case of the Copenhagen Maimonides is exemplary of this condition. While the grand narrative of the movement of Aristotelian thought in Europe focuses on the Parisian Averroist controversy of the thirteenth century, the dissemination of Aristotelian thought in the Jewish communities of Spain and France provides a fascinating complement with which to nuance or enrich the story of Averroism in the Latin West.

Just as the Andalusi thinker Muhammad ibn Rushd worked to reconcile the natural philosophy of Aristotle with Islamic revelation, so too did his near-contemporary, the Andalusi Jew Musa ibn Maimun, known to European Jewry as Moshe ben Maimon and to the Latin West as Maimonides, for the Jewish world. His groundbreaking writings on the relationship between Greek philosophy and Torah ignited a centuries-long controversy in Europe’s Jewish communities that in some ways has never ended.

The Copenhagen Maimonides is textual and material witness to this culture war between Maimonideans and traditionalist Jewish scholars who vied for influence and power during the Middle Ages. The fourteenth-century Catalan manuscript of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed is illuminated by the atélier of Ferrer Bassa, a fourteenth-century Catalan Christian artist, no doubt well familiar to our colleagues in Art History, whose cv includes works such as Maria of Navarre’s Book of Hours, and the Anglo Catalan Psalter. This material and aesthetic enmeshment of Jewish and Christian material culture is emblematic of the threat Maimonidean Aristotelian thought posed to more traditional approaches to Jewish revelation that sought to isolate, or protect (depending on your position) Jewish thought from the intellectual and social culture of the dominant Christian majority.

This manuscript is an emblem of the cultural moment of the Jewish elites in southern France and Spain in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, in that it brings together the questions of internal divisions within Jewish communities as well as their relationship with the dominant Christian majority and the extent to which Jews shared cultural values with their Christian neighbors.

Ibn Rushd aka Averroes

Fresco of Averroes by Andrea de Bonaiuto

Fresco of Averroes by Andrea de Bonaiuto (14th c.) (source:

Muhammad ibn Rushd lived in al-Andalus in the twelfth century, during the Almohad period. He was a judge for the Almohad Caliph and was responsible for a number of commentaries on the works of Aristotle, that had been circulating in Arabic for some two hundred years by his time. His major achievement was to reconcile Aristotle’s natural philosophy with Islamic doctrine. He argued that philosophy was not only permissible within the framework of Islam, but necessary to knowing God’s creation and God’s will. He drew criticism both from neoplatonists and from those opposed to the study of natural philosophy, but perhaps due to the variety of acceptable approaches to Islamic law, did not suffer persecution for his more unpopular ideas.
Ibn Rushd’s natural philosophy was very influential in the Latin West, where translated a number of his works into Latin in during the thirteenth century. Scholars of these works attracted criticism. While Rome did not consider Aristotle’s works in principle to be heretical, some of the conclusions Ibn Rushd drew, particularly those regarding the nature of the relationship between the individual and God, were condemned.

Musa ibn Maimun aka Rambam aka Maimonides

Statue of Maimonides in his hometown, Cordova

Statue of Maimonides in his hometown, Cordova (source:

The most influential interpreter of Aristotelian natural philosophy in Jewish world was Musa ibn Maimun, known in Hebrew as Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, by his Hebrew acronym RAMBAM, or as Maimonides in Latin. Maimonides was born in Cordova during the so-called Tafia period that followed the disintegration of the Andalusi Umayyad Caliphate but later fled persecution at the hands of the Almohads to North Africa where he lived for some time. Eventually he made his way to Fustat where he served as nagid or leader of the Jewish community as well as court physician to the Ayyubid Sultan, Saladin. He wrote revolutionary works in a number of fields, but is best known for his works of biblical and talmudic commentary characterized by his signature rationalist approach to interpreting Torah. His most influential works are the Kitab al-Siraj, Sefer ha-Mishnayot in Hebrew, a commentary on the Mishna; the Mishne Torah, a comprehensive codification of Jewish law, and the Dalálat al-Ha’irin, Moreh Nebukhim, or Guide for the Perplexed, his synthesis of Aristotelian natural philosophy and Jewish doctrine. It is the Royal Library’s fourteenth-century copy of the Guide that concerns us today, but a bit about Maimonides’ other influential works will help to set the stage for the scope of his influence in Jewish civilization in general.

The Maimonidean Controversy

The work of Maimonides had been very influential in Jewish thought on the Iberian Peninsula since his lifetime. His works were at the center of the curriculum for Jewish elites in Castile and Aragon. French Jews who were at a further distance from Maimonidean thought and who had not adopted a rationalist approach to the study of Jewish revelation found his works and interpretations of his works more problematic. At the core of the debate is a struggle between philosophy and theosophy. Rationalists under the banner of Maimonides argued that philosophy, and the exercise of God-given human reason was the best way to know God, by observing his creation and arriving at logical conclusions regarding the nature of the divine and of the relationship between the human and the divine. Traditionalists rejected philosophical approaches to revelation as heretical in favor of a theosophical approach by which all knowledge is a product of divine revelation, and that everything that is permissible can be learned by study of the Torah and its commentaries. This debate will seem familiar to many; it is the great-great-grandparent of current debates regarding creation, and the role of revelation in the organization of society.

Banned in Montpellier

Portrait of Maimonides with banned symbol covering his face


It’s important to remember that the backlash against some of the interpreters of Maimonides was directed not against the work or person of Maimonides himself, but rather against later interpretations of the Guide that were understood to threaten traditional doctrine in Maimonides’ name. Even the most ardent opponents of Maimonideanism did not object to Maimonides as an authority, or even to many of his propositions that were certainly provocative to more conservative interpreters of Jewish tradition. Eventually these concerns gave rise to two groups of Rabbis spread across Provence, Aragon, and Castile, who advocated for or against these later interpretations of Maimonides’ natural philosophy.

In the first quarter of the thirteenth century, Rabbi Solomon ben Avraham of Montpellier and his students were concerned that interpreters of Maimonides were abrogating Jewish law for their own purposes, all the while hiding behind Maimonides’ authority (Silver 150–51). In 1232 he promulgated a ban on Maimonides’ Guide. In so doing he ignited a controversy. Another group of Maimonists formed not far away in Lunel, enlisting influential rabbis in Castile and Aragon for support. In the same year, they issued a ban on anyone interfering with the teaching of philosophy. Jewish communities in Aragon signed on to it, and a line was drawn in the sand (Silver 151). Each side enlisted the greatest minds of their generations to support their cause. The Catalan Rabbi Nahmanides, who would later debate the Dominican Friar Paul before King Jaume I himself, tried to reconicle the two sides, but was not successful (Silver 165).

In Aragon in particular, the Controversy mapped onto tension between religious and secular leadership (Silver 166), with the Mamonists coming down on the side of secular leadership and the anti-maimonists on the side of the rabbinate. As the controversy developed, the nexus between religious and temporal issues remained at its center.

Diagram of kabbalistic sefirot or divine emanations

Diagram of kabbalistic sefirot (divine emanations) (source:

The Maimoideans eventually prevailed, while the traditionalists dedicated themselves to the study of Kabablah or Jewish mystical theosophy, developing important centers of its study in Provence, Aragon, and Castile. Traditionalists continued to agitate against philosophy, especially in Provence., where Rabbi Solomon Ibn Adret wrote a ban against Provençal Maimonists in 1305 on the grounds that their allegorical interpretation of the Bible violated Jewish tradition (Forcano 94).

The Copenhagen Maimonides in its cultural context

Fourteenth-century Castile and Aragon saw a good deal of cultural commonality between Jewish and Christian élites. Jews spoke the same languages as their Christian neighbors, and Jewish élites, dependent as they were on good graces of their king, were avid consumers and producers of many of the cultural practices of the court. Typically, the closer individual Jews were to court, the more assimilated they were to the culture of the dominant majority in matters other than religion.

An iconic cosmopolitanism

Photo of cosmopolitan cocktail


However, despite the very real philosophical and doctrinal debates that surrounded interpretations of the Guide, the book itself became iconic of Jewish cosmopolitanism and a willingness to engage with the non-Jewish world. Just as their detractors painted Maimonists as free-thinkers and assimilationists who favored secular leadership over the rabbinate, so too did cosmopolitan Jewish elites look to the Guide not only as an important source of information, but also as a symbol of their role as mediators between temporal power and the Jewish communities. For them, it was natural that the Rabbi who brought together Greek science and Torah should be an icon of their own cultural position between the Christian court and the Jewish community. It is in this light that we must understand the Copenhagen Guide. It signaled cosmopolitanism and sophistication. As a tangible artifact illuminated by a Christian artisan, it was an emblem of the Jewish notable’s role in the political economy of the times.

The Cophenhagen Maimoinides

The manuscript is richly illuminated and bound with the introduction of the translator Samuel ibn Tibbon, as well as the translator’s glossary of Aristotelian terms in Hebrew. It contains a number of marginal illuminations as well as some larger historiated illuminations, all of which are clearly identifiable as the work of the atelier of Ferrer Bassa, a Christian Catalan artist who also illuminated the Anglo-Catalan Psalter, the Book of Hours of Maria of Navarre, and the Catalan Micrography Mahzor (NLI MS Heb 8º6527), a prayer book for the Jewish high holidays. In Castile and Aragon at this time, Jewish artisans sometimes worked on Christian art and in some cases, Christian artisans produced works of Jewish art. The Copenhagen Guide is one of these examples.

A new Maimonides?

Folio 227v of the Copenhagen Maimonides held by the Danish Royal Library. Maimonides is pictured seated before four students with his hand pointing toward the work's title

Copenhagen Maimonides, Danish Royal Library Cod Heb 37, f227v

The manuscript’s patron was Menahem Betzalel, a Jewish physician in the service of Peter IV of ‘the Ceremonious’ of Aragon. The king also patronized works by the atélier of Ferrer Bassa, and so Betzalel’s commission of the Guide reinforced his relationship to the king and the culture of the court. As a royal physician himself, Betzalel may have imagined himself a new Maimonides, and his possession of the deluxe manuscript of the Guide may have signaled this identity to members of the Jewish community of Barcelona.

Evangelist Remix

The symbols of the four evangelists, Matthew is an angel, Mark a winged lion, Luke a winged bull, and John an eagle, are placed at the four corners of the Hebrew word for introduction, 'hakdamah'

Reuse of traditional symbols of Evangelists to illustrate discussion of Ezekiel’s vision (Cod Heb 37 f. 403v)

However, it in the redeployment of Christian iconography that this manuscript is remarkable and perhaps unique among Hebrew illuminated manuscripts of the time. In the Guide, Maimonides discusses the vision of Ezekiel described in chapter 1, verses 4-28. In the Christian reading of the Hebrew Bible, the animals that form this fantastic beast are imagined as representing the four evangelists Matthew is an angel, Mark a winged lion, Luke a winged bull, and John an eagle. Ezekiel, however, does not name specific animals in his vision. This allegory of the evangelists was a common image in medieval Christian iconography. In the Maimonides Guide, the illuminator uses a historiated miniature of the Christian icons to illustrate Maimonides’ discussion of the vision of Ezekiel. Chapman points out that Bassa had previously used this illumination in both the Anglo-Catalan Psalter and the Hours of Maria of Navarre, but replaced the banners featuring the names of the Christian saints traditionally associated with the animals (drawn from the Revelations) with the Hebrew word Hakdamah, or “introduction.” Its use in a Jewish manuscript demonstrates for Chapman the manuscript’s cultural ambivalence, but for me it is suggests a kind of openness or self-confidence in adapting materials across confessional groups provided they are not in direct conflict with religious doctrine. While it would be problematic for a Jewish manuscript to attribute sainthood to followers of Jesus, there’s nothing wrong with drawing a fanciful version of the vision of Ezekiel to make the ideas of the Torah more real for Jewish readers; this is simply exegesis, and midrash is full of these kinds of gestures.

In closing, the Copenhagen Maimonides tells two interrelated stories. The first is that of the Movable World, in this case, the journey of Aristotelian natural philosophy from Athens to Baghdad to Cordova to Barcelona. The second is that of the medieval Iberian Jewish communities who adapted and transformed Aristotle’s ideas through the lens of their own experience. For them, the controversy stirred by Ibn Rushd’s and Maimonides’ interpretations of Aristotelian natural philosophy were embedded in broader issues facing the communities: the brittle relationship with the Church and the preaching orders, the social implications of conflicting schools of exegesis, the balance of power between secular and rabbinic leadership within the Jewish community, and, for the elites, the challenge of living as a powerful member of a religious minority negotiating between the royal court and the kahal, or Jewish community.


  • Brown, Stephen. “The Intellectual Context of Later Medieval Philosophy: Universities, Aristotle, Arts, Theology.” Routledge History of Philosophy Volume III: Medieval Philosophy, edited by John Marenbon, Routledge, 2003, pp. 188–203.
  • Chapman, Katherine Woodson. Image and Identity : Re-Reading the Illustrations of the Copenhagen Maimonides. S.M.U, 2009.
  • Forcano, Manuel. “La lletra apologètica de Jedàia ha-Peniní de Bésiers.” Anuari de filologia. Secció E. Estudis hebreus i arameus, vol. 6, 1996, pp. 93–104.
  • Kogman-Appel, Katrin. Jewish Book Art Between Islam and Christianity: The Decoration of Hebrew Bibles in Medieval Spain. Brill, 2005.
  • Leaman, Oliver. Averroës and His Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Sánchez, Tomás Jesús Urrutia. “Saber de sabios y saber de profetas: la controversia maimonideana y Sem Tob Ibn Falaquera.” Revista española de filosofía medieval, no. 16, 2009, pp. 57–68.
  • Silver, Daniel Jeremy. Maimonidean Criticism and the Maimonidean Controversy, 1180-1240. EJBrill, 1965.

This post is a version of a conference paper I gave at the 2019 meeting of the Centre for Medieval Literature, “Shared Worlds,” held in Copenhagen at the David Collection and the Danish Royal Library. My thanks to the Centre for their invitation to participate.

Sefarad for Hispanists

The road to Sefarad (source:

What is the role of Sefarad for medieval Iberian studies? One of the core concepts of Iberian studies as a field in challenging traditional Hispanism is to decenter Castilian and develop approaches that integrate texts, voices, and materials from the other linguistic traditions of the Peninsula. At the turn of the twenty-first century, specialists in premodern Hispanic studies began to issue calls to rethink the field in ways that made meaningful connections with the currents of thought that had been transforming Colonial and Latin American studies since the ‘theory revolution’ of the 1980s (Dagenais and Greer 2000; Fuchs 2003; Cascardi 2005). This emerging discussion of global Hispanism all but omitted the Sepharadim and conversos, whose study suffers a double marginalization in the field for being geographically and religiously outside the scope of most specialists in Hispanic studies. Jewish religion and Hebrew language do not typically form part of Hispanists’ training except among specialists in Sephardic or Latin American Jewish topics. Scholars working in the subfield of medieval Hispanism, however, took up the challenge of broadening the discussion and making room for the other medieval languages of the Peninsula.
María Rosa Menocal reminds us:

If unified nations and single national languages are the benchmarks for the divisions of literatures established in the modern period, then the medieval universe which precedes it cannot be fit into those same parameters and divisions, without distorting the past to make it seem as if its only lasting value was in laying the groundwork for a distant and ultimately unimaginable future (Menocal 2004a, 61)

In the same volume and in a similar key, John Dagenais calls for renewed attention to Sephardic studies under the umbrella of Iberian studies:

The remarkable flourishing of Sephardic culture, including numerous publications in Ladino, often using the Hebrew alphabet, in the centuries following the expulsion, as well as the survival today of hundreds of ballads whose origins can be traced back to late medieval Spain among the Jewish communities of North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, the Near East, and the New World, give a shape to ‘medieval’ Iberian literature which defies not only the national and ethnic boundaries but also the temporal ones we might place upon it. It requires a rethinking, especially, of what such temporal boundaries mean. (Dagenais 2004, 54–55)

Manuscript 13th-century Spanish manuscript of the Psalms (source:

It is telling that Dagenais does not mention Sephardic Hebrew texts (as opposed to Ladino or the Castilian spoken and written by Jews and conversos): it is not, after all, a variety of Spanish, as is Sephardic Spanish. Menocal, on the other hand, was emphatic in emphasizing Hebrew as an Iberian language and advocates for scholars who do not read Hebrew and Arabic to rely on translations as a point of departure for further study and as a way to expand the scholarly discussion (Menocal 2004b, 159; Wacks 2008)

Iberian Studies is an emerging field that seeks to read the cultures of the Peninsula against the grain of national history and philology. The objective of an Iberian studies approach is to deprivilege the national ideas of Spain and Portugal and the institutions of Hispanism in order to try to make space for the voices we do not hear in a narrative that focuses on Catholic Castilian men writing in Castilian.  In the preface to his 2013 volume Iberian modalities: a relational approach to the study of culture in the Iberian Peninsula Joan Ramon Resina highlights the discipline’s “intrinsic relationality and its reorganization of monolingual fields based on nation-states and their postcolonial extensions into a peninsular plurality of cultures and languages pre-existing and coexisting with the official cultures of the state” (Resina 2013, vii). In 2017, the editors of the Routledge Handbook of Iberian Studies, Javier Múñoz-Basols, Laura Lonsdale, and Manuel Delgado, write that they seek to create “a comparative space in which the much greater linguistic and cultural diversity of the Iberian Peninsula is the prime object of interest” (Múñoz-Basols, Lonsdale, and Delgado 2017, xxiii).

Categories? What categories?

Medieval Iberianists have been doing this work for years, thanks to the pre-national character of the societies we study. Medieval Iberians did not experience their world in the categories inherited by the nineteenth-century academics who taught us to write national literary histories, and there is no reason contemporary academics should hew to their example apart from mere conservatism or habit of thought.

However, in looking beyond Castilian, we may run some risk of observing national literary history in its breach. For example, if we recognize the existence of Hebrew, Arabic, and non-Castilian romance dialects but relegate them to the ‘kids’ table’ by ghettoizing them in their own respective chapters or subdisciplines (Greer 2006, 71), we have not made much progress. However, there is much we can learn by attempting to integrate Iberian Jewish voices into a broader vision of the cultural history of the Peninsula. Individuals and communities were often bilingual or multilingual; courts were most certainly; that of Alfonso X of Castile-Leon (r. 1252-1284) is the favorite example among Hispanists, but one could also mention the Caliph Abd al-Rahman III (r. 912-961) or Jaume I (r. 1213-1276) of Aragon as rulers of multilingual, multicultural courts. The producers and consumers of medieval Iberian literature did not see a given text as belonging to a national tradition. Rather, they were products of a particular person and a particular cultural moment whose context was usually more complex than we make it out to be today. Furthermore, studying a cross-section of Iberian linguistic traditions together provides us a richer context for studies of individual authors or texts, in any language or religious tradition. As Brian Catlos has written in his discussion of Mediterranean culture, “developments that seem anomalous, exceptional, or inexplicable when viewed through the narrow lens of one religio-cultural tradition, suddenly make sense when viewed from the perspective of a broader interconnected and interdependent [system]” (2017, 14). Developments in Jewish Iberian culture are often part of broader Iberian or Mediterranean currents across religious groups and languages.

The study of Sefarad as an idea or field of cultural practice has much to offer and enrich Medieval Iberian studies. More than just the study of a ‘minority culture’ that thrived within Andalusi or Christian societies, it is a different lens through which to view the world: if Hispanism sees the medieval Iberian world through Castilian, Christian eyes, and takes as its center the courts of the kings of Castile-Leon, the study of texts and cultural practices of Jewish Iberians see the world through two lenses: the Jewish and the Sephardic. It is a sort of double consciousness (Du Bois 1989, 3) by which Sepharadim see themselves both as Jews constituted within a Jewish symbolic order, and on the other hand see themselves reflected as dhimmi or Jewish subjects of Muslim or Christian majoritarian cultures.


Judaism as a culture developed a vision of the world with the Biblical world at the center, predicated on the memory of a pre-exilic Israelite political order, with the rabbis as “substitute kings” (Biale 1986, 45). In diaspora, this political order transformed into a series of metaphors, by which the power of sovereign institutions that no longer existed (crown, court, army, Temple, priesthood) became a series of abstractions, mediated by the Rabbis and funded by the community leadership, both of whom partnered with the temporal authorities to ensure the well-being of the Jewish communities. This meant that Sefarad was at once a place where Jews controlled the affairs of their communities and in which Jewish voices spoke with the authority of the Rabbinate (sublimated from that of Moses), and one where they constantly mediated with the temporal powers (caliphs, kings) who ultimately controlled their destinies. This cosmovision is significantly different from the Christological world order that characterized Christian sources and provides a very different lens through which to read Iberian literature and culture.

Israeli Chief Rabbis Itzhak Yosef and David Lau (source: Jewish Telegraphic Agency)








Works Cited

  • Biale, David. 1986. Power & Powerlessness in Jewish History. New York: Schocken Books.
  • Cascardi, Anthony. 2005. “Beyond Castro and Maravall: Interpelletion, Mimesis, and the Hegemony of Spanish Culture.” In Ideologies of Hispanism, edited by Mabel Moraña, 138–59. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
  • Catlos, Brian A. 2017. “Why the Mediterranean?” In Can We Talk Mediterranean?: Conversations on an Emerging Field in Medieval and Early Modern Studies, edited by Brian A. Catlos and Sharon Kinoshita, 1–18. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Dagenais, John, and Margaret R. Greer. 2000. “Deconlonizing the Middle Ages: Introduction.” Journal of Medieval & Early Modern Studies 30 (3): 431–48.
  • Dagenais, John. 2004. “Medieval Spanish Literature in the Twenty-First Century.” In The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature, edited by David T. Gies, 39–57. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Du Bois, W. E. B. 1989. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bantam Books.
  • Fuchs, Barbara. 2003. “Imperium Studies.” In Postcolonial Moves: Medieval through Modern, edited by Patricia Clare Ingham and Michelle R. Warren, 71–90. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Greer, Margaret. 2006. “Hispanism and Its Disciplina.” Hispanic Issues Online.
  • Múñoz-Basols, Javier, Laura Lonsdale, and Manuel Delgado. 2017. “Preface.” In The Routledge Companion to Iberian Studies, edited by Javier Múñoz-Basols, Laura Lonsdale, and Manuel Delgado, xxii–xxiv. London: Routledge.
  • Resina, Joan Ramon. 2013. “Preface.” In Iberian Modalities: A Relational Approach to the Study of Culture in the Iberian Peninsula, edited by Joan Ramon Resina, vii–x. Oxford University Press.
  • Wacks, David A. 2008. “Is Spain’s Hebrew Literature ‘Spanish?’” In Spain’s Multicultural Legacies: Studies in Honor of Samuel G. Armistead, edited by Adrienne Martin and Cristina Martínez-Carazo, 315–31. Newark, DE: Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs.

Fairies and pagan mythologies in the medieval Spanish ballad

modern rendering of a tree fairy (source:

It is well known that many pre-Christian beliefs and practices survive some fifteen hundred years after the Christianization of the Iberian Peninsula (see my earlier post on Asturian mythology). Some of these have been syncretized with Christian doctrine and practice, while others exist in parallel with or as a complement to Christianity.

Celtic migration (source: wikipedia)

We don’t know very much about the non-Roman, pre-Christian religions of the Peninsula. The Romans built very durable monuments and kept wonderful records, but we cannot say the same for the people who preceded them, whatever you want to call them. The so-called Celts, as far as we can tell, left settlements all over Europe, from Central Europe to the British Isles, and their legacy is clearest and best preserved in those areas where the Romans did not penetrate, and where vernacular literacy came early, such as Ireland, where literate monks were able to preserve local traditions and cults that had not been interrupted by Roman cult. We have no Cattle Raid of Cooley or Mabinogion of pre-Roman Iberia, no epic accounts of Celtic cults and traditions. What we do have, however, is a significant and growing body of archeological and toponymic evidence of pre-Roman cultures, Roman ethnographic accounts by historians —such as they are— and a fairly well documented ethnography of modern Iberian traditions with strong analogues in the so-called Celtic rim that runs from Ireland to Scotland to Wales to Brittany to Northern Spain. Against this background we can read whatever medieval literary evidence remains. And this is where it gets interesting. Much of this evidence, as we are about to see, is syncretized and presented as part of Christian tradition.

the Asturian busgosu (forest spirit), or to Martin of Braga, a demon

Christian sources describe local supernatural beliefs and practices as demonic. As far back as the early fifth century, Augustine wrote of pagan gods as demons in his City of God (Ferreiro 378). A century later in Galicia, Martin of Braga warned that “many of these devils who were banished from heaven hold sway over the rivers, the springs and the forests, and ignorant men worship them and make sacrifices to them as if they were gods” (De correctione rusticorum sec. 8). This is logical: it would hardly do for villagers to continue to pay tribute to Lugh and Deva to keep them safe at sea once they had received instruction on the Trinity and the Saints. There was a new pantheon, and while the old gods might not disappear entirely, they would have to continue in service to or in opposition to the new gods.

Pagan beliefs and practices continued to coexist with Christianity throughout the middle ages, leaving their traces in literature and art. Today I’d like to read with you two Spanish ballads (romances) that contain what critics tend to describe as “supernatural” or “magical” features, and look at these supernatural features against the documented modern ethnographic evidence of pagan beliefs and practices.

The first ballad is well-known and widely anthologized and taught. It is one of the few medieval Spanish ballads featuring a supernatural being who is not a saint or the ghost of a Christian. “La infantina,” or The Princess, and tells of the encounter between a knight who discovers an enchanted princess in a tree in the woods, who begs him to disenchant her and make her his wife or perhaps girlfriend. Before responding, the prince claims he must first go back to the castle to ask his mother’s advice. When he comes back, it is too late. The enchanted princess has been carried away. The ballad ends with the distraught knight bewailing his failure, and threatening to carry out himself the curse suggested by the princess: que le corten pies y manos — y lo arrastren por la villa (may they cut off his hands and feet, and drag him through the town).

On the face of it, this is a strange supernatural tale. The narrative sparseness so characteristic of the ballad adds to this sense of strangeness. Several features of this story bear analysis and comparison to modern traditions documented by ethnographers that may shed some light on it for us.

Yew tree (texu), Bermiego, Asturias

To begin with, the veneration of trees in pre-Christian Europe is well documented (Filotas 145). In Spain and other countries one finds ancient yew trees, tejos or texus, planted next to churches in a syncretistic gesture. Paloma Díaz Mas reminds us that enchanted princesses who ask princes to disenchant them are reflections of very ancient traditions of lady tree deities (Díaz Mas 336). Julio Caro Baroja writes that the Noche de San Juan is the time when these enchantments may be broken, and several communities in Spain enact this with rituals in which demonic or supernatural figures come out and proposition the young ladies or men of the village (Caro Baroja 278).

Miranda family crest (source: wikipedia)

This reenactment of the erotic encounter between fairy and human is not merely fanciful or carnivalesque. There are a number of traditions that attribute supernatural origins to noble houses resulting from such unions. The legend of the house of Miranda in Asturias relates that the first Miranda married a fairy who would turn into a dragon one night a year. The family crest features five mermaids, from another version in which the progenitor married a siren instead of a fairy. These traditions are remnants of a time when fairies were gods, and descent from them explained why one family was more powerful than others: it was a narrative used to justify the social order.

Now’s let’s have a look at some of the particulars of “La infantina.” The prince comes upon “un roble, — alto es a maravilla” (an oak tree – incredibly tall).  According to some traditions, fairies manifest in oak groves. With the Christianization of the Peninsula, we see a transformation of this tradition in which Virgins appear in these sacred groves, and it is not uncommon to name girls after them: María del Robledo and so forth. In the town of Constantina near Seville there is a sanctuary dedicated to the Virgen del Robledo, where the Virgin appeared to a local pastor in the early sixteenth century.

Nuestra Señora del Robledo, Constantina, Sevilla (source:

In the ballad, the infantina’s hair covers the entire oak (todo el roble cubrían), demonstrating her physical integration with the tree and the intimate link between the spirit and the natural feature she embodies. The fairy explains that she is royal: Fija soy yo del buen rey — y de la reina de Castilla (‘I am daughter of the good King and Queen of Castile), which speaks to the medieval traditions of royal and noble descent from fairies. She tells how she was enchanted by seven fairies, and that today is the one day in which the enchantment can be broken: Hoy se cumplían los siete años (“today the seven years are complete”). Many of the supernatural traditions associated with St. John’s Day involve the divining of one’s future spouse and the number seven (Caro Baroja 249). The best known is the fountain at the Marian Sanctuary of the Cave of Covadonga in Asturias. According to tradition, if one drinks from all seven of the fountain’s spouts, marriage is soon to follow.

The actress Eva Longoria drinks from the Covadonga fountain in April 2017 (source:

Our second example is less cryptic and contains references to several documented beliefs and practices also related to St. John’s day. It is titled “La flor del agua” (Literally, ‘the flower of the water’). In the ballad, the Virgin Mary comes down from heaven to bathe herself in the waters of a local spring. She encounters a maiden — doncellita — coming from the village, on her way to the spring to collect the flor del agua. This refers to the first draught of water taken from a fountain on the morning of St. John’s day that is thought to have magical characteristics and that helps to attract a spouse (Caro Baroja 181–83). The maiden asks the Virgin if she will get married, and the Virgin assures her that she will, that she will have three sons who will grow to become kings, and that she will also have a daughter, and will die giving birth to her.

Ermita Nuestra Señora de la Fuensanta, Pizarra, Málaga

The substitution here of the Virgin for the traditional fairy is curious. In other sources, fairies associated with a water source come there to wash their hair or their clothes, and the traces they leave in the water are ostensibly what gives the water its curative or otherwise magical powers. In many cases these fairies are replaced by Virgins, who are then venerated as la Virgen de la Fuensanta (The Virgin of the Holy Spring). While it is common in Medieval art to portray the Virgin Mary as beautiful, one does not usually imagine her bathing, washing her blancos pechos (“white breasts”) and linda cara (“beautiful face”). This is clearly a case of a pagan tradition given a fresh coat of Christian paint. Many of these traditions are still practiced in parts of rural Spain. For example, the practice of the enramada or garlanding of wells and especially springs around St. John’s day is still current in Asturias and elsewhere in the North. Asturias in particular has quite of bit of fairy toponomy, with many springs, grottoes, and caves named for fairies or xanas in Asturian.

Fuente enramada, Dego (Cangas de Onís), Asturias

Now, the big question is, what do these fairies mean for medieval audiences? This is where it gets more complicated. The question of meaning or belief is difficult to determine even when you can ask an informant, which, in the case of the middle ages, we cannot. Most of the medieval writing relative to the supernatural comes to us from priests who are condemning pagan beliefs as demonic. The glimpses of pre-Christian beliefs and practices that we catch in lay sources such as ballads and other bits of narrative are seen darkly through a blurry lens. Other artistic evidence such as the fantastic creatures and animals decorating Romanesque and Gothic churches do not come with explanations as do Biblical and Hagiographic art. In the case of modern practices, we can ask the informants, but often they consider such things to be local traditions that have no place in Catholicism and therefore no spiritual or metaphysical meaning apart from their value as markers of local community and culture. Perhaps we can never know what these traditions meant to their practitioners. We can, however, read the literary record against the ethnographic and other evidence we have in order to gain a deeper understanding of the transformation of pre-Christian traditions in the context of medieval Christianity on the Peninsula.

Works cited

  • Caro Baroja, Julio. La estación de amor: (fiestas populares de mayo a San Juan). Taurus, 1979.
  • Díaz Mas, Paloma. Romancero. Crítica, 2006.
  • Ferreiro, Alberto. “St. Martin of Braga’s Policy Toward Heretics and Pagan Practices.” American Benedictine Review, vol. 34, 1983, pp. 372–95.
  • Filotas, Bernadette. Pagan Survivals, Superstitions and Popular Cultures in Early Medieval Pastoral Literature. Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2005.
  • Green, Richard Firth. Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

This post is a version of a paper I gave at the 2018 Modern Language Association Convention, in session #397 New Currents in Medieval Iberian Studies (#mla18 #s397). Thanks to Matthew Bailey for organizing and to Isidro Rivera for presiding.









Ten weeks of arguments, from Judah Halevi to Cervantes: or, yet another post on the survey course with a free, open-access course reader online!

This is another entry in a series of posts on the survey course in premodern Hispanic literature:

Spanish majors at the University of Oregon are required to take three of four available courses on Hispanic Culture through literature, covering the 12th through 21st centuries. Those of us in the Spanish sector of the department who are specialists in premodernity (Leah Middlebrook, Amanda Powell and me), are responsible for the survey course covering the 12th through 16th centuries, or roughly speaking from the death of Judah Halevi (1141) to the publication of Don Quijote in 1605. We have some 40 contact hours to bring everyone up to speed on the Iberian cultural production of half a milennium (blows smoke off fingertip and puts hand back in imaginary holster).

Spanish Majors of the Past (photo: University of Oregon)

Time was when literary history drew some water. Some thirty years ago, many Spanish majors were pretty much Spanish-speaking/reading/writing English majors for whom literary history was authoritative. ‘The Classics,’ however you might understand the idea, were a prestigious model of literary aesthetics that was emblematic of the learned culture of the times, and therefore worthy of study. For reasons that merit a whole series of blog posts I’m not capable of writing, this is no longer the case. Many students majoring in Spanish are not primarily intersted in literary studies. As a result, a course does not sell on the promise of introducing you to the most important literary works written on the Iberian Peninsula from the twelfth or thirteenth through, say, seventeenth centuries. You will probably do better by appealing to another way in to Hispanic cultural studies, whatever it may be.

This year, I am trying out something new: I am going to try to teach premodern Hispanic literary texts as a series of debates focusing on issues of social importance. Students will learn about Hispanic history and culture by debating issues raised in texts written during the 12th-17th centuries that give voice to the issues of the day: religion, sex, economics, politics. Every week for ten weeks, my students will stage a debate based on their readings of primary and secondary texts, and will publicly argue pro and contra in Spanish.

Critical thinking (Source: CNN)

My thinking was to (a) provide students with some preparation in public speaking and critical thinking with the purpose of developing skills necessary for argumentative writing, and (b) promote critical reading and reasoning skills essential for participatory democracy, so that students will have the intellectual preparation to be full participants in the civic life.

To this end, I’ve prepared a syllabus, and an open-access, online reader free for anyone to use and/or adapt to their needs (there are lots of problems with textbooks, but anyone can tell you that price is one of them). The course is structured as a series of debates. The introduction to polemic and debate centers on an episode in the 14th-century Libro de buen amor (Book of Good Love) narrating a debate between the Greeks and the Romans that the Greeks stage in order to determine if the Romans are worthy of bearing the Greek intellectual legacy. From there. we go on to units about homoerotic Hebrew poetry, crusade theology, the Virgin Mary, Averroism, the Indigenous soul, poverty, European Islam and fiction.

Representation of a sitting of the Roman senate: Cicero attacks Catiline, from a 19th-century fresco in Palazzo Madama, Rome, house of the Italian Senate. (source: Wikipedia)

There are two classes per week. The first day of class will be an introduction to the texts and contexts in which we will learn some background and read the primary and secondary sources texts. In preparation for the second day, students will prepare both sides of a question: is the Cid a Crusader? Is the Virgin Mary a God? Is the creation story literal or metaphoric? Is poverty a choice or a destiny? Students in teams will debate these and other questions, providing evidence from the primary and secondary readings. In so doing, my aim is that the students will gain a familiarity with and insight into the premodern Hispanic world, and develop rhetorical skills in Spanish (that transfer to other languages) that will empower them as participants in public discourse.

I have no idea if this is going to be a successful approach. But I promise to let you know what happens!

Jewish sources in the narrative of Abraham in the General estoria

In a previous post I wrote about the influence of Jewish exegesis in the development of fictionality, that is, those aspects of prose fiction that serve to enhance the as-if function of fiction and make possible the suspension of disbelief required of audiences of fiction. In the past post I discussed examples drawn from the Castilian translation of the Song of Songs included in the General estoria of Alfonso X (r. 1252-1284), a universal history in the Castilian vernacular that relates human history from creation through the reign of Alfonso’s father, Ferdinand III (known since the seventeenth century as ‘The Saint’ and after whom Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley aka ‘The Valley’ is named).

San Fernando Valley Credit: Oakshade, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Here I will examine a few examples drawn from the Abraham cycle of the General Estoria of Alfonso X in which Jewish exegesis appears to shape the Castilian vernacularization of the Vulgate text, paving the way for later Castilian writers in their vernacularization of exempla and other Latin texts, and ultimately, for the development of a more capacious Castilian literary register used to describe fictional worlds.

The work’s prologue spells out the goals of the text: men would like to know the past, present, and the future, but can only know the past. To this end they wrote many books recording the deeds and stories of great men, in which group he includes ‘God, the prophets and the saints, as well as kings, high nobility, knights, and commoners’ (“de Dios e de los profetas e de los santos, e otrossí de los reyes, e de los altos omnes e de las cavallerías e de los pueblos”) (Alfonso X , 1: 8).

The purpose of these positive portraits is exemplary, so that “men might take the example in order to do good,” (“e de los fechos de los malos que recibiessen castigo por se saber guardar de lo non fazer”) (Alfonso X , 1: 8) while the bad deeds of biblical characters serve as a reminder of what not to do. This approach puts the author Moses in same category as Herodotus, Livy, and Josephus:

[I] had them gather many texts and histories of the deeds of antiquity; I selected the truest and the best of those of which I had learned and made this book. And I also had them put in it all the best stories from the Bible, of the great things that happened throughout the world from when it began up until our own times.

ove fecho ayuntar muchos escritos e muchas estorias de los fechos antiguos escogí d’ellos los más verdaderos e los mejores que ý sope e fiz ende fazer este libro. E mandé ý poner todos los fechos señalados tambien de las estorias de la Biblia como de las otras grandes cosas que acaecieron por el mundo desde que fue començado fasta’l nuestro tiempo. (Alfonso X , 1: 8)

It’s El Cid! No, wait….
Charlton Heston as Moses Source:

The truth claims made by the General estoria, as a work of historiography, are more similar to those of the modern novel than they are to those of modern history. Medieval historiography does not aspire to an empirical referentiality. It does not intend to recreate or represent historical events in the same way we have come to expect of modern historiography. Because medieval historiography and biblical narrative both made similar types of truth claims, their combination in a text such as the General estoria is not problematic as it would be today. And because Alfonso’s goal was to produce a universal, rather than eschatological or Christological account the past, the inclusion of pagan Classical, Muslim, and Jewish courses strengthens, rather than compromises, the text’s authority.

In this reading of the second part of the Abraham cycle, my approach has been to observe where the General estoria differs from the Vulgate, and from there where it differs from its most heavily used sources: Petrus Comestor’s Historia Scholastica, Josephus’ Antiquities, and Godfrey of Viterbo’s Pantheon.

As I found in my study of the Jewish sources of the General estoria’s translation of the Song of Songs, the evidence suggests that the compilers of the General estoria rely on Jewish sources in order to develop the fictionality of the narrative; that is, in order to augment and enhance the Vulgate narrative by focusing on aspects that are suggestive of modern ideas of fiction: characterization, motivation, and narrative coherence or continuity.


‘Hagar Leaves the House of Abraham’, Peter Paul Rubens, 1615- 1617 Source:

Our first example of the influence of Jewish exegesis on the General Estoria’s Abraham cycle is in its characterization of Sarah’s servant Hagar. Now pregnant with Abraham’s son Ishmael, while Sarah remains barren, Hagar becomes disdainful and haughty toward her mistress. You can see the sources at number three on your handout.

The Vulgate mentions only that she is disdainful (“despexit dominam suam”) but the General estoria goes into a bit more detail, relating that she ‘began to be unruly and to sniff at her mistress and disdain her words’ (“començó a seer loçana e a despreciar a su señora e desdeñar la su palabra”) (Alfonso X 5:26, 245). Comestor, one of the General Estoria’s most common Christian sources, echoes the Vulgate with out further comment, but the Midrashic sources brought together in Ginzburg’s Legends of the Jews dramatize Hagar’s haughtiness in detail:

When noble matrons came to see Sarah, she was in the habit of urging them to pay a visit to “poor Hagar”, too. The dames would comply with her suggestion, but Hagar would use the opportunity to disparage Sarah. “My lady Sarah,” she would say, “is not inwardly what she appears to be outwardly. She makes the impression of a righteous, pious woman, but she is not, for if she were, how could her childlessness be explained, after so many years of marriage, while I became pregnant at once? (Ginzburg 201)

The Jewish exegete Rashi, whose commentaries were read widely in Spain during Alfonso’s time, also cites this Midrash in his commentary on Genesis.

Sarah and Abraham
Bible traduite en français par Jean de Sy. 15thc. BNF f.14r Source: Bibliotheque Nationale de France

At other times, the compilers enrich the version found in the Vulgate in order to explain the motivations of the characters, just as the Midrash often does. When Abraham and Sarah first arrive in Egypt, the news of Sarah’s beauty travels quickly. The Vulgate reports simply that Pharaoh’s courtiers told him about Sarah. Josephus adds a bit more detail, explaining that the Pharaoh was not content with second hand reports and insisted on meeting Sarah in person (Josephus I.8.1, 27). Comestor and Godfrey of Viterbo are silent, but the General estoria goes into a bit more detail to explain the courtiers’ motives, relating that “When the courtiers of Egypt saw her, they then tried to ingratiate themselves with the king, telling him how they had seen a young lady, a pilgrim, who was very beautiful, and praised her to him quite a bit.” (“los poderosos de Egipto pues que la vieron por engraciarse dixieron al rey cómo vieron allí una manceba que andava como peregrina e era muy fermosa, e alabárongela mucho”) (Alfonso X 5:4, 212). On this detail both Rashi and the thirteenth-century Catalan exegete Nahmanides both state explicitly that the courtiers reported on Sarah’s beauty because they thought the Pharaoh might choose her for his harem, again emphasizing motive.

One of the other concerns of the compilers is to provide more narrative coherence between otherwise discrete episodes of the Old Testament, in order to build a more comprehensive and interrelated storyworld. This is also characteristic of the prose fiction of the late Middle Ages in its development toward the modern short story or novel. The compilers here provide details drawn from Jewish sources that connect episodes that in the Vulgate are unrelated.

Isaac Isaacsz, Pharaoh Returns Sarah to Abraham, 1640. Oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Source:

Sarah’s servant Hagar, mother of Ishmael, was given to her as a gift from Pharaoh when she and Abraham left Egypt. This detail is missing from the Vulgate, and Josephus and Comestor likewise do not mention it. The General estoria explains that Hagar was in fact one of the servants given to Abraham and Sarah by Pharaoh:

Among the riches and the servants male and female that King Pharaoh, his ministers and his friends gave to that Abraham and his wife Sarah and his nephew Lot, he gave Sarah, out of the great love he had for her, a young girl servant who was very close to him, and begged her to let him demonstrate his great love for her; and Sarah happily received the servant from him and brought her with her. And this servant was Hagar, of whom we shall speak further on.

E entre las riquezas e los siervos e las siervas que dend sacaron Abraham e Sarra su muger e Lot su sobrino que les dio el rey Faraón e sos privados e sos amigos dio el rey a Sarra por el grand amor que oviera d’ella una sierva mancebiella, e que era muy su privada, e rogóla que le fiziesse algo por el su amor; e Sarra recibiójela de grado, e levósela consigo. E esta sierva fue Agar, de quien fablaremos adelante. (Alfonso X 5:6, 215)

Fragments of the Qumran Genesis Apocrypha Plate 647 1Q20 1Q apGen

The text here again works to resolve the gift of Hagar from the Pharaoh to Sara. In the Rabbinic mind, it is to establish legal precedent for the Israelites’ claim to the land of Goshen. But for the compilers of the General estoria, unconcerned about legitimizing Jewish claims to this or that parcel of land, it is about fictional logic; they want to explain why Pharaoh gave Sara a parting gift. In fictional terms, this gesture serves to connect Hagar with the Egypt episode, as well as to deepen Pharaoh’s characterization, as it humanizes the love (lust) that Pharaoh had for Sarah. Furthermore, it uses the reader’s familiarity with Hagar to think ahead to her eventual expulsion and suffering in the wilderness, further deepening the characterization of both servant and mistress. In Jewish sources, the tradition of Pharaoh’s donation of Hagar to Sarah is quite old, first witnessed in the Apocrypha of Genesis in Qumran 1, but the more likely source for the compilers of the General estoria is again the Pirkei de Rabi Eliezer, which describes Hagar not only as a servant of Pharaoh, but as his own daughter by a concubine (Eliezer ben Hyrcanus. 26:2, 190).



By way of conclusion, we must say that these examples are suggestive, but not yet conclusive. The very circumstances of the compilation of the General estoria work against positive identification of its Jewish sources. The compilers often identify Christian and Muslim authorities, while specific Jewish sources aside from the Hebrew Old Testament, or rather the author Moisés, are not. Once in a while the compilers say “the Jews say” or “the Jews believe,” but for the most part they say nothing. Occasionally a when the compilers say “some say” the “some” turns out to be a Jewish source. We have no record of the working habits of the teams who compiled the General estoria and relatively little information about which versions of which exegetical texts a Jewish translator working for Alfonso might have had access to. Still, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. I am increasingly convinced that the compilers made regular use of Jewish exegesis in their adaptations, and further study of the biblical material in the General estoria will teach us more about this aspect of the text’s composition, an aspect that may teach us a great deal about the role of anonymous Jewish intellectuals in the birth of Castilian fiction.

Works Cited

  • Alfonso X. General estoria. Ed. Borja Sánchez-Prieto. 10 vols. Madrid: Fundación José Antonio de Castro, 2009. Print.
  • Eliezer ben Hyrcanus. Los capítulos de Rabbí Eliezer = Pirqê Rabbî ʼElîʻezer. Trans. Miguel. Pérez Fernández. Valencia: Institución S. Jerónimo para la Investigación Bíblica, 1984. Print. Biblioteca midrásica ; 1; Biblioteca midrásica ; 1.
  • Josephus, Flavius. Antiguedades de los judíos. Trans. Alfonso Ropero Berzosa. Vol. 1. Barcelona: CLIE, 1988. Print.

This post is a version of a paper I wrote for a session on Jewish sources in the Biblical translations in the General estoria for the Cultural “Symbiosis” International Research Consortium: Humanities, Ideas, and Power in Motion (Sevilla, May 16-18, 2017) organized by Francisco Peña Fernández (UBC Kelowna). Many thanks to my research partner David Navarro (Texas State San Marcos), who read the paper when I was not able to attend. This conference was part of the larger project, “Confluence of Religious Cultures in Medieval Iberian Historiography: A Digital Humanities Project” supported by funding from Social Science and Humanities Research Council, Goverment of Canada.

Ramon Llull’s Missionary Crusade in Blaquerna ca. 1280

I come with a (s)word. Ramon Llull in a manuscript of his Ars Magna, ca. 1320. (Source: Wikipedia)

Catalan author Ramon Llull’s Blaquerna (late thirteenth century) is the story of a Christian monk whose path to spiritual perfection takes the shape of a knightly romance. Just as the knight errant goes from one military challenge to the next, all the while gaining in power and prestige, the hero of Blaquerna ascends the spiritual ladder from monk to papacy, all the while pursing his goal of converting the infidel and saving the souls of all Europe. It is a great example of how medieval Iberian authors put fiction to work promoting ideologies of crusade and conversion in a specifically Iberian context. Blaquerna is the novel of ideas for his theories of missionizing and conversion. In it he repeats in fictional form the ideas he first put forth in his crusader writings such as Liber de fine. In Blaquerna, Llull lays his plan for universal missionary crusade in a novel patterned after the chivalric novels of the crusader age in which he advocates for an ambitious, military-backed program of forensic crusade that would bring all of Islam, and the pagan nations as well, into the Church.

It takes two. (Source: The DIstrict Post, Horsham, West Sussex, UK)

A missionary strategy for Iberian crusade

By the end of the thirteenth century it had become clear that the crusades as they had been imagined since the end of the eleventh century were not going to result in a Christian Jerusalem. Louis IX’s failed campaigns to Egypt and Tunis were from the start a compromise that had more to do with demonstrating piety and securing trade routes than actually winning Jerusalem. Crusading had become an important institution in Western Christendom whose utility went far beyond the romantic goal of a Christian Jerusalem. Correspondingly, while the idea and image of an Eastern crusade persisted in art and literature, it was no longer a military or political goal taken seriously at the highest levels. However, the relative success of the Christian conquest of al-Andalus had an important impact on the crusader imaginary of the thirteenth century. The crusades in Iberia were going far better than those in the East. This was good news for the Iberian military orders, whose participation in the conquests laid the foundation for the Iberian Christian political order.

Conversion of the infidel was not until the thirteenth century an important feature of the crusading project. From Urban’s first sermon’s preaching the First Crusade up until the middle of the twelfth century there are no voices calling for the conversion of Muslims and Jews, but rather for their annihilation, banishment, or at best, exploitation as subject minorities. This may be simply because the societies where the crusader movement emerged had no significant experience missionizing subject Jews and Muslims. However, as Christian kingdoms conquered more and more of the formerly Andalusi territories of the Iberian Peninsula, this situation began to change.

Poster for Fiestas de Moros y Cristianos in Abanilla, Murcia, Spain. (Source:

 The Iberian crusader imaginary

What was this Iberian contribution to the crusader imaginary? How did the Iberian experience transform the idea of crusading from its beginnings in France? The conquest of al-Andalus resulted in Christian kings ruling over substantial Muslim and Jewish minorities, creating massive captive markets for the missionary work of the Dominican and Franciscan orders who had, over the course of the thirteenth century, become increasingly important players on the spiritual and religious stage of Christian Iberia. Once the sword had done its work, it was time for the cross to take over. It was this social reality of massive missionary ambition that produced a new strain in crusading fiction on the Peninsula: missionary crusade, a crusading ideal whose goal was not only to conquer, but to convert as well.

Ramon Llull’s Blaquerna is a kind of chivalric novel remade in a spiritual, missionary key. It substitutes spiritual and theological values for chivalric and courtly ones The hero excels in faith, devotion, and works. His swordsmanship is lacking. He defeats enemies by preaching to them. His goal is to convert the entire world to Christianity, to lead by example, and to draw the infidel to Christianity through reason, debate, and logic. Blaquerna’s crusade comes not only with a sword, but also with a syllogism.

Blaquerna is the fictional component of Llull’s grand ideological and intellectual program of crusade and mission. His Ars magna (Great Art) is the engine of conversion, the science that has the potential to unlock the minds and therefore the hearts of the unbelievers. The Liber de fine (Book of the End) and other crusade treatises are meant to mobilize political will and resources among the Church, the nobility, and the crown. The Llibre de l’ordre de la cavalleria (Book of the Order of Chivalry) is a training manual for the knights entrusted with enforcing Christian rule and setting the stage for the missionary to move in and close the deal. But the matador in this bullfight is the philosopher-preacher, who armed with Llull’s Ars, accomplishes with syllogisms in this new era of missionary crusade what the Templar and the Knight of St. James once accomplished with the sword: the conquest of the souls.

It’s a sword, no, it’s a cross, no, wait….. Sword of Santiago, (Source: Wikimedia)

The Missionary Knight Crusader

Llull expounds this vision of the spiritual role of the knight in his Llibre de la orden de la cavalleria, in which he describes the knight as a kind of armed religious, a fitting ideology for the crusading age (Fallows 2). Following the doctrine of crusader as pilgrim that goes back at least to the sermons of Urban IX preaching the first crusade, the crusader knights, “cross the sea to the Holy Land on pilgrimage and take up arms against the enemies of the Cross.” (Van los cavalers en la Sancta Terra d’Oltramar en peregrinació, e fan d’armes contra los enamics de la creu) (Llull, Order 71; Llull, Cavalleria 208, 6.4). Just as the clergy upholds the faith with words, so does the knight with the sword. Here the sword (itself conveniently shaped like a cross) substitutes the cleric’s cross as instrument of Christ’s will on earth:

Just as our Lord Jesus Christ vanquished on the Cross the death into which we had fallen because of the sin of our father Adam, so the knight must vanquish and destroy the enemies of the Cross with the sword.


Enaxí con nostro senyor Jesucrist vensé en la creu la mort en la qual érem caüts per lo peccat de nostro pare Adam, enaxí cavayler deu venscre e destruir los enamics de la creu ab l’espaa (Llull, Order 66; Llull, Cavalleria 201, 5.2).

Blaquerna transforms the knightly ideal of epic and Arthurian Romance under the twin influences of thirteenth-century crusading and of Llull’s specific vision of the role of the knight in the later age of crusade after the fall of Jersualem. This missionary chivalry, based as it is on the weapon of disputation and on learning, displays a sophisticated understanding of Islamic doctrine, which is hardly surprising coming from Llull, who in his autobiography relates having spent years learning Arabic for this very purpose.

Benedicta tu in mulieribus. Pere Serra, Altarpiece, Monastery de Sant Cugat, ca. 1390. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Knight of Mary against the Saracens

Llull demonstrates this knowledge in an episode in which Blaquerna converts a knight itinerant he encounters to the cause of the Virgin, inducting him into the chivalric order Benedicta Tu, a reference to the Angel Gabriel greeting Mary in Luke 1:28: Benedicta tu in mulieribus (Blessed art thou among women).

In imitation of Arthurian knights who challenge all comers in defense of their lady’s nobility, the knight travels to the court of a Saracen king, intending to convert him and his subjects to Christianity. He challenges the King and any knight of his court to single combat. The king refuses, citing his belief (correct according to Islamic doctrine) that

Our Lady was [not] Mother of God, but that he believed indeed that she was a holy woman and a virgin and the mother of a man that was a prophet.


Nostra Dona [no] fos mare de Deu, mas be crehia que fos dona santa e verge, mare de home profeta (Llull, Blaquerna 253–254; Llull, Romanç 294, II.64.14)

The king refuses to meet the knight in combat and suggests instead that they dispute the matter. Nonetheless, the missionary knight of the order of Benedicta Tu demands single combat because he lacks the education necessary to engage in formal debate with the Saracen king, who eventually agrees to have his champion fight the Christian. The Christian knight fights the Saracen to a standstill, and they continue the next day, at which point the Saracen finally converts, provoking the rage of the Saracen king, who has both knights executed:

So they became martyrs for Our Lady, who honoured them with the glory of her Son, because for her sake they had suffered martyrdom. Even so she is ready to honour all those who in like manner will do her honour.


Aquells foren martirs per Nostra Dona, qui los honrá en la Gloria de son Fill per ço cor per ella a honrar havien pres martiri; e está aparellada de honrar tots aquells qui per semblant manera la vullen honrar” (Llull, Blaquerna 255; Llull, Romanç 295, II.64.16)

Here Llull again deploys a well-known trope from the chivalric literature of the day: the knightly challenge to his opponent to admit the supremacy of his lady or face single combat. Instead of championing his damsel, he champions the virgin, and just as the vanquished knight of a chivalric romance must on his honor concede to the supremacy of the victor’s beloved above all other women, here he must pledge fealty to the Virgin. This challenge (of course) proves irresistible, and the Saracen, defeated in single combat, submits to the supremacy of the Christian knight’s lady by converting to Christianity.

The conversion of this Saracen knight vividly puts into practice Llull’s brand of spiritualized and intellectualized chivalry by which he places the chivalric ideal of service to one’s lady squarely in service to the Church, substituting the Virgin for the knight’s earthly beloved.

Works Cited

  • Fallows, Noel. “Introduction.” The Book of the Order of Chivalry. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: The Boydell Press, 2013. 1–33. Print.
  • Llull, Ramon. Blanquerna: A Thirteenth Century Romance. Trans. E. Allison Peers. London: Jarrolds, 1926. Print.
  • —. Llibre de l’orde de cavalleria. Ed. Albert Soler i Llopart. Barcelona: Editorial Barcino, 1988. Print. Els Nostres clàssics. Col·lecció A volum 127.
  • —. Romanç d’Evast e Blaquerna. Ed. Joan Santanach and Albert Soler. Palma de Mallorca: Patronat Ramon Llull, 2009. Print.
  • —. The Book of the Order of Chivalry. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: The Boydell Press, 2013. Print.

This blog post is part of a larger, book length project on Iberian crusade literature tentatively titled Spanish Crusade Fiction.

Rabbis, a Spanish Biblical History, and the Roots of Vernacular Fiction

Translate this.

Translate this. [photo: Bible Leaf. Vulgate Bible. France. Circa 1150. source: Graduate Theologial Union]

The rise of fictional literature in medieval Europe coincides with the emergence of vernacular literatures. Writers such as Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Don Juan Manuel are noted for localizing regional fictional narratives, ‘dressing’ them in local geography, cultural practice, and especially vernacular language. The General Estoria, [see last post on Jewish Exegesis in the biblical translations found in the General Estoria] composed by Alfonso X ‘the learned’ (1252-1284) is a universal history spanning from creation to the reign of Alfonso’s father, Fernando III (who eventually lent his same to the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles). It includes a series of translations from the Latin Vulgate bible into Castilian, the vernacular language of the court. In these Castilian translations of biblical narratives pressed into the service of court history, we can observe some of the earliest developments of a vernacular fictionality, some of which have their roots in the Jewish exegesis of the middle ages.

The translation of Biblical texts into the European vernaculars was one important laboratory for medieval fiction. Alfonso’s translations of biblical narratives drew on Jewish biblical commentaries that sought to bring Biblical language (and the reality it represented) in line with local, contemporary life of Jewish communities. As such, it was a model for literary fiction in that it strove to take material, ideas, and worlds described in classical language, and make them relevant to contemporary culture and daily life.

Bible as history paves the way for fiction

Hardly photographic [Renoir, Chestnut Trees in Bloom (1881) Source: wikimedia commons]

Hardly photographic
[Renoir, Chestnut Trees in Bloom (1881) Source: wikimedia commons]

Readers of medieval history did not expect histories to be empirically correct representations of historical events. Rather, they looked to them to provide stories of great deeds of the past told in an entertaining and convincing fashion. In this way, their function was closer to that of the modern historical novel than the modern history book. For us, medieval history writing is a Renoir: moving, inspiring, beautiful, but hardly photographic; we might say the same of Biblical narrative, which only the most fundamentalist regard as accurate in the same way they would expect from a history book. For this reason, it was far less problematic in the thirteenth century to include biblical texts in works of historiography than it would be today. In order to make this biblical history come alive in the vernacular, Alfonso’s translators brought to bear the tools and methods of Jewish exegesis, in ways that would have implications for the development of vernacular prose fiction.

It seems counterintuitive that a Christian king should resort to Jewish biblical commentaries in order to render the Bible into Spanish. It was not as if there were a shortage of Christian scholars who were capable of translating the Latin Vulgate into Spanish. Why bring Rabbis into the picture? Alfonso had long demonstrated a keen interest in scriptural and exegetical traditions of his subject religious minorities. His nephew Don Juan Manuel, himself an important voice in early Castilian literature, relates the following:

He ordered translations of the Muslim scriptures…. also he ordered translations of the Jewish scriptures and even their Talmud and another discipline that the Jews keep hidden that they call Kabbalah. He also translated into Castilian all laws Ecclesiastical and Secular. What more can I tell you? No man can say how much good this noble king has done to grow and illuminate knowledge (Juan Manuel 2: 510–520; Alvar 49).

Alfonso ordered translations of the major sacred texts of Islam and Judaism. He did so not in order to convert his subject Jews and Muslims, but to satisfy his curiosity about the world and its history. His court was a major center of translation of Arabic science into Castilian, and he employed Christian, Muslim, and Jewish scholars in these projects. After his death he enjoyed far greater renown for his patronage of science and arts than he ever did as a statesman.

By Alfonso’s time, Castile had long been an important center for Biblical translation, and Jewish translators often worked alongside their Christian counterparts to produce these translations. There are numerous episodes, motifs, and methodological earmarks of the work of Jewish exegetes in the biblical material in the General estoria (Peña Fernández). Alfonso’s translators explain aspects of the material world of the bible in contemporary terms, a tactic prevalent in the work of important medieval Jewish exegetes such as Rashi of Troyes and Abraham ibn Ezra of Navarre, both of whom brought examples from the contemporary cultural life of the community in order to give new relevance and meaning to the biblical storyworld. In my previous post on the General Estoria, I mentioned a few examples from the Song of Songs that you can read here.

The contribution of Jewish biblical commentary to the development of fictional worlds


It’s in there [Guillaume de Paris, Postillae maiores totius anni cum glossis et quaestionibus (Lyon, 1539) . souce: wikipedia]

How does this kind of evidence point up the specific contribution of Jewish exegesis to the development of vernacular fictionality in the General Estoria? While Christian exegesis focuses on subordinating the Old Testament narrative to a Christological interpretation, Midrash, and Jewish exegesis more broadly, is more concerned with filling narrative gaps (which abound in the narrative sections of the Old Testament) and explaining motives and emotional states. As such it is far more aligned with what critics commonly imagine to be the goals of fiction: plausible representations of things that could be real, but are not.

Jewish exegesis is also in large part concerned with making scripture and earlier commentaries more relevant to the lives and realities of contemporary Jewish communities. To this end they often employ the vernacular to explain an object, animal, or other realia whose meaning is unclear in the Hebrew or Aramaic. The twelfth century exegete Rashi of Troyes in particular, is well-known for his use of medieval French to explain difficult etymons and concepts, and it is perhaps no accident that he was working at the dawn of vernacular literary composition in France, when Troubadours began to sing and authors of Romances began to write in French and not Latin.

Like translations, exegetical texts are doing the work of bringing the text over, closer to the lived realities of the audience. Just as a translator is concerned with rendering a source text into a target language, an exegete is concerned with rendering the world of the text into the target vernacular culture, the bridge between classical traditions.

Translation is a form of interpretation, and just as biblical commentary expands the meaning of scripture and aligns the text with the reality of new generations of readers, the translation of scripture into the vernacular itself a form of biblical commentary, one that reflects the values and practices of the current generation.

True, but not Real [Lancelot and Guinevere, north-eastern France or Flanders (St Omer or Tournai), 1316, Additional 10293, f. 199. source: British Library, Medieval Manuscripts blog]

True, but not Real
[Lancelot and Guinevere, north-eastern France or Flanders (St Omer or Tournai), 1316, Additional 10293, f. 199. source: British Library, Medieval Manuscripts blog]

How is this significant for the development of fiction? One of fiction’s defining characteristics is its lack of what philosophers and literary critics call ‘referentiality’; put simply, it says things that are not real. Good fiction is able to say things as if they were real, and have us believe that they are in some way true, even if they don’t refer to real events. In the middle ages, this true-but-not-real quality applied equally to tales of knights and ladies, to history books, and even to biblical stories when they were included in history books. The idea that medievals were hyper-literalist scriptural fundamentalists who believed in the perfect referentiality of scripture is more a product of our own cultural moment than of medieval culture.

Vernacular fictional worlds


Writing in the vernacular catalyzes the make-believe function of fiction, because the familiar sounds of everyday speech (even if not one’s native language) make the alternate reality of the fictional world more plausible, more believable, and more easily provoke the suspension of disbelief key to the audience’s participation in the covenant of fiction. This vernacularization enhances the ‘as-if’ nature of fiction, establishing more vivid points of reference between the fictional and ‘real’ words. Medieval Jewish exegetes knew this, and took pains to map the Biblical and ancient rabbinical worlds onto contemporary vernacular culture, making frequent use of the vernacular languages they spoke in order to do so. This was also the case in the arts: medieval biblical illuminations of stories set in the ancient fertile crescent feature characters dressed in contemporary costume. Alfonso’s translators took a page from their book in striving to make biblical texts relevant to the concerns and sensibilities of Alfonso’s court, a court that strove to elevate the vernacular of its subjects to the level of a classical tradition. In so doing, I believe they sowed seeds of what would later become modern fictionality’s attention to realistic detail and empirical plausibility in creating new worlds for new readers.

David, who's your tailor? [Photo: David loads provisions in the Maciejowski Bible, New York, Morgan Library Ms M. 638, f. 27 Source: wikimedia commons]

David, who’s your tailor?
[Photo: David loads provisions in the Maciejowski Bible, New York, Morgan Library Ms M. 638, f. 27 Source: wikimedia commons]

Works Cited

Alvar, Manuel. “Didactismo e integración en la General estoriaI (estudio del Génesis).” La lengua y la literatura en tiempos de Alfonso X. Actas del Congreso internacional (Murcia, 5-10 de marzo de 1984. Murcia: Universidad de Murcia, 1985. 25–78. Print.

Juan Manuel. Obras Completas. Madrid: Gredos, 1982. Print.

Peña Fernández, Francisco. “La Relatividad de Las Cosas: Heterodoxy and Midrashim in the First Chapters of Alfonso X’s General Estoria.” eHumanista (2013): 551. Print.

This post is a version of a paper I gave at the conference “Theorizing Medieval European Literature”, Centre for Medieval Literature, (University of York/University of Southern Denmark) at York, July 2, 2016. Thanks very much for the Centre’s directors, Profs. Elizabeth Tyler, Lars Boje Mortensen, and Christian Høgel, for the invitation.

It is part of a collaborative, online digital critical edition of the Biblical material in Alfonso X’s General e grant estoria titled “Confluence of Religious Cultures in Medieval Iberian Historiography: A Digital Humanities Project” and supported by funding from Social Science and Humanities Research Council, Government of Canada

How Christian was Iberia in the Middle Ages? And how can you tell?

Festival of La Vijanera in Siló, Cantabria. Photo: J.L. Gómez Linares (Wikipedia)

Festival of La Vijanera in Siló, Cantabria. Photo: J.L. Gómez Linares (Wikipedia)

How Christian, or how Pagan, was the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages? And how do we go about answering this question? To do so we need both to define terms and to identify the evidence. By how Christian I mean to what extent did its inhabitants practice Christianity? By how Pagan I mean to what extent did its inhabitants practice pre-Christian cults? The two, as we will see, are not mutually exclusive, and the evidence ranges from plastic arts such as Romanesque buildings, to literary forms such as epic, ballad, and chronicle, to modern popular festivals in which clearly pagan practices and figures persist. In the North of the Iberian Peninsula, Celtic cults persisted well into the twentieth century as folk practices, and in some cases were Christianized. In the south and the Mediterranean coast, Roman cults were transformed into those of the Saints and the Virgin. All over the peninsula, the Church raised churches and hermitages at traditional cultic sites such as springs, rivers, and cliffs where locals paid tribute to pagan gods. Celebrations of solstices and other events marking the agricultural cycle were likewise covered with a veneer of Christian doctrine, but were essentially pagan in substance and symbology.

Shepards during the transhumance in Oncala, Soria Photo: C. Ortega (El Mundo)

Shepards during the transhumance in Oncala, Soria
Photo: C. Ortega (El Mundo)

The scholarly narrative of the Christianization of Iberia tends to assume that once Iberian monarchs became Christian, paganism was relegated to mountain villages and the high pastures. The further you get from the towns, the less Christianized people were. However, this narrative is based largely on Christian sources, which stands to reason: if the institutions producing durable art and letters are Christian, they are not likely to be openly promoting pagan values. If we take Christian literature as the sole measure of the impact and saturation of Christian cultic practice, we are looking at a badly skewed sample.

Iglesia de San Andrés, Pecharromano, Segovia, Spain Photo: Nicolás Pérez (Wikimedia)

Iglesia de San Andrés, Pecharromano, Segovia, Spain
Photo: Nicolás Pérez (Wikimedia)

However, even Christian cultural practice belies a lingering paganism in the Peninsula well after we assume the total defeat of organized pagan religion under Christianity: you just have to know where to look. Eleventh-century Romanesque art, much of it in churches, bears ample evidence of pagan traditions. Castilian epic poetry likewise preserves features of pre-Christian mythologies. Hagiographies and other representations of Christian Saints preserve characteristics, narrative features, and reminiscences of pre-Christian cultic practices. Popular pagan celebrations and beliefs related to the agricultural cycle are alive and well both in popular festivals and in medieval ballads sung at the festivals. Even the modern oral traditions of parts of Spain preserve folk mythologies that are at best uneasy companions to Christian doctrine. Fairies come out during summer solstice; white stags herald the appearance of fertility goddesses, and the Celtic rain god controls the weather.

13th-century representation of the Green Man, Bamberg, Germany Photo: Johannes Otto Först (Wikipedia)

13th-century representation of the Green Man, Bamberg, Germany
Photo: Johannes Otto Först (Wikipedia)

Pagan traditions, symbology, and iconography are represented in the Church art of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Amidst the secondary ornamentation in a number of Iberian Romanesque churches one can find representations of local mythological traditions, usually dismissed by art historians as fanciful or grotesque figures. Whole series of figures tucked away in corbel tables behind the central nave of churches, hidden under the lids of misericords, or in otherwise marginal positions in ornamental programs of churches and monasteries reveal nods to local mythological traditions that have evaded the gaze of most art historians, but that ethnographers recognize instantly as figures from local mythologies.

Many of these traditions, medieval and modern, are syncretistic: Celtic and Roman gods are refashioned as saints. Others are agonistic: saints and priests do battle with the old gods or spirits in a kind of popular mythomachia; the parish priest defeats the local dragon. The burning question is how to interpret this evidence: on the one hand, the transformation of a pagan God into a Christian saint is normally not taken as evidence of a persistent pagan cult. However as most aspects of human culture, religion is not necessarily a zero-sum game. We need to allow for for the possibility of elements of more than one cult to co-exist and for both to be meaningful. Scholars have long studied and celebrated the resilience of African and Indigenous cults to survive in an officially Christian context in the New World. We might likewise re-evaluate the evidence of pre-Christian cultic practices in Christian Europe with an eye toward assessing how popular religious practice and Christian art in medieval Iberia transmitted and transformed pre-Christian traditions.

a Santa Muerte south of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Source: Wikimedia

a Santa Muerte south of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
Source: Wikimedia

Religions cross over, assimilate, and blend, and Christianity should not be considered different in this aspect. When Roman religion came to the Celts and the Germanic peoples, their gods assimilated to the Roman Gods. When Christianity overtook the Roman Gods, or their Roman-Celtic amalgams, a similar process obtained; in the loosely translated words of Pierre Saintyves, “these gods were often transformed and Christianized, topped with a golden halo and placed in a Christian heaven, where they might enjoy the glories and triumphs of the new Olympus.” In this process, Christian places of worship ended up with the same images, statues, and legends as the old temples, and the that the masses might confuse the Saints with the old Gods is understandable (Saintyves 11).

Richard Fletcher has written on the persistence of paganism in the countryside of Western Latin Christendom. He reminds us that country folk are “notoriously conservative” and that the cultures they developed over centuries “for managing their visible and invisible environments, were not going to yield easily, perhaps were not going to yield at all, to ecclesiastical injunction” (Fletcher 54). How to deal with the stiff-necked peasants? Work with them. Pagan-Christian syncretism was likely equal parts hegemony from above and resistance from below.

All Souls’ Day in Skogskyrkogården, Sweden Source: Wikimedia

All Souls’ Day in Skogskyrkogården, Sweden
Source: Wikimedia

Pierre Saintyves pointed out as early as 1907 that priests found it more convenient or expedient to allow the people to persist in their popular practices, provided they subordinated these to the Christian cult. I am suggesting that the Church partnered with the rustic pagans in order to maintain hegemony. There is, in my opinion no other way to explain some of the Iberian evidence upon which I am about to touch. None other than Saint Jerome makes the same argument. After the Council of Elvira in 300 banned the pagan practices associated with All Souls’ Day such as burning candles in cemeteries to honor the dead, many churchmen worked to enforce the ban and wean the people off of their traditions. Baronius argued that burning candles would upset the souls of the dead. Jerome is more pragmatic. He argued that provided they burned candles to honor the Saints instead of their dead relatives or local gods, there was no reason not to accept the practice (Saintyves 89).

Other examples are more convoluted. One explanation for many saints’ miracles, according to Pierre Saintyves, is the literal interpretation of symbolic imagery. For example, there are a number of saints that are said to have picked up their decapitated heads before ascending to heaven. This is a symbol of preparing to meet your Lord, just as a wounded warrior would present himself before his lord after battle for formal review before mustering out. Here a rhetorical figure is interpreted as a physical miracle.

St. George slays the dragon in the De Grey Hours (Flanders, late 14th c.) f.31v (Wikimedia)

St. George slays the dragon in the De Grey Hours (Flanders, late 14th c.) f.31v (Wikimedia)

Another example, also from Saintyves, is the saint fighting the dragon, meant to be taken as a symbol for evil, but interpreted as a literal, physical beast (Saintyves 124). One wonders if Christian preachers and writers purposefully used these images because they had value in pre-Christian traditions of the proselytes, but then backfired. For example, if in preaching about a saint, one describes him as defeating all evil, here personified as a dragon. The audience might then rely on their own traditions and imagine this saint defeating the local dragon that in turn symbolizes (in a less abstract way) the vicissitudes of nature. This is borne out in modern ethnography in which informants report (as late as the twentieth century) that local priests defeated the dragon that had been harassing the village for centuries.

The converse is also sometimes true: Charles Plummer, in his study of Irish Saints’ lives, noted that epithets of Celtic gods that were meant to be taken literally were often interpreted as metaphoric in Christian sources. By this logic, a Celtic sun god who is described as having a face “as brilliant as the sun at midday” becomes a Saint whose beatific face radiates only metaphorically (Plummer cxl). All of this evidence points up a long, slow syncretic process that begins with the arrival of Christianity to the Peninsula, but that is still in play. Pagan cultic practices, now classified as superstition or local tradition, persist, sometimes aided and abetted by Christianity, other times in despite it.

Works Cited

  • Fletcher, Richard. The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997. Print.
  • Plummer, Charles. Vitae sanctorum Hiberniae. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910. Print.
  • Saintyves, P. Les saints successeurs des dieux. Paris: E. Nourry, 1907. Print. Essais de mythologie chrétienne.

This is the text of a position paper I gave at a roundtable titled “How Monotheistic was the Mediterranean?” moderated by Prof. Sergio La Porta (CSU Fresno) and including Profs. Fred Astren, Samuel Cohen (Sonoma State), and Roberta Ervine (Nersess Armenian Seminary), during the Spring 2016 Mediterranean Seminar Workshop at CSU Fresno. Many thanks to Mediterranean Seminar co-directors, Profs. Sharon Kinoshita (UC Santa Cruz) and Brian Catlos (U Colorado) and to conference organizer, Prof. Sergio La Porta.

Jewish sources for a Christian Bible: The Cantar de Cantares in Alfonso X’s General estoria

Alfonso X as a judge, from his Libro de los dados, completed ca. 1280. Source: Wikipedia

Alfonso X as a judge, from his Libro de los dados, completed ca. 1280. Source: Wikipedia

Alfonso X of Castile-Leon (r.1252-1284) compiled a massive universal history titled the General estoria, an ambitious project meant to encompass all of known history, from creation to the current era. The General estoria included a good deal of biblical material, vernacular versions of selected books of the Old and New Testaments. Vernacular versions of the Bible were a bit of risky proposition in an age when vernacular translations of the Latin Vulgate were technically not allowed. But Alfonso X was an intellectual, perhaps a bit of a free thinker, and in some cases his push for greater openness in knowledge production rubbed up against orthodoxy.

In come cases the biblical material in the General estoria seems to be engaging in exegesis (interpretation of biblical texts) and not simply directly rendering the text of the Latin Vulgate bible into thirteenth-century Castilian. There are asides, digressions, glosses, and variants, all of which suggest that the compilers of the text drew on a variety of sources that included, in addition to the Latin Vulgate Bible and the works of Christian commentators, the Hebrew Old Testament (Tanakh) and the works of Jewish commentators. In this entry, I discuss my analysis of the Cantar de Cantares (Song of Songs) included in the General estoria.

General estoria prologo

Prologue, General estoria f.1r-a, Biblia Medieval ed. Andrés Enrique-Arias and Javier del Barco

To what extent is the Alfonsine Castilian Cantar de Cantares a product of intellectual collaboration between Jewish and Christian scholars? That is, as Prof. Guadalupe González has remarked, given that Jews did not write history books for Jews in the thirteenth century, did some of them perhaps have a hand in writing history books for Christians? This is a difficult question to answer. Typically when a Christian author incorporates Jewish sources, they do not cite them, unless they are writing a polemic text meant to refute the Jewish source in question. But when the Jewish source is being used to enrich or round out the knowledge base of the Christian author, one usually has to do a bit of detective work in order to identify sources.

For this reason I would like to spend a couple of minutes talking about methodology. How do you read a Castilian Biblical translation with an eye toward parsing out the “Jewish” —and I put the word “Jewish” here in scare quotes because of the philosophical question of what is a Jewish author or a Jewish text when we are not talking about a text used by a practicing Jew in the practice of Judaism or in the context of a Jewish audience. By way of comparison one might think of the fourteenth-century didactic poem Proverbios Morales, written by Rabbi Shem Tov ben Isaac Ardutiel de Carrión in Castilian for King Pedro III ‘The Cruel.’ [see related blog post here] The poem contains references to a number of Jewish sources but does not cite them, nor is it overtly Jewish, that is, it does not explicitly address Jewish scriptural, exegetic, or moral questions. Conversely, the Cantar de Cantares in the General estoria is explicity a Christian text, in the sense that it was written for a Christian patron in the framework of Christian religion. However, some aspects of the translation (and we must use this term in the more capacious medieval sense that we might better translate in the modern context as ‘version’ or ‘interpretation’) point to Jewish sources.

Corpus comparison of General estoria, Vulgate, and Tanakh at the Biblia Medieval website (

Corpus comparison of General estoria, Vulgate, and Tanakh at the Biblia Medieval website

But how can we tell? There is a good deal of interference to deal with. The Cantar de Cantares mostly follows the Vulgate, which in turn is a (rather faulty) translation from the Hebrew and as such has linguistic and interpretive characteristics that are particular to the Hebrew Tanakh. Likewise, early Christian commentators of the Song of Songs such as Origen were influential on both Christian and Jewish exegetical tradition. This and other factors muddy the waters a bit when we are trying to positively identify what we might call “Jewish” or “Christian” influences on the Alfonsine Cantar de Cantares.

I began by reading different versions side by side: the Cantar de Cantares next to the Vulgate next to the Tanakh, and noting where the Alfsonsine version differed from the Vulgate and from the Tanakh, giving especial attention to where it differed from both. In the cases where the text seemed to deviate from the Vulgate I tried to find explanations in medieval Jewish exegetes, especially the commentaries of Rashi and of Abraham ibn Ezra, both of which pay attention to the literal sense of the Song of Songs. This is important because the Alfonsine translation is quite literal for the most part and makes no reference whatsoever to the traditional allegorical interpretations of the Song that dominate all discussion of the text in sacred contexts.


Luis de León, in Libro de descripción de verdaderos retratos, ilustres y memorables varones (The book of description of real portraits, illustrious and memorable men) (Francisco Pachecho, 1599) Source: wikipedia

Most medieval commentators were wary of discussing the literal meaning of the Song. In fact, one could get into quite a bit of trouble by considering the literal meaning apart from its traditional interpretations as the story of the love between God and the Church, God and Israel, or (from the twelfth century forward) God and the individual believer. But in the end, as Luis de León boldly demonstrates in the sixteenth century, with disastrous results, the Song of Songs is a love song, a racy, sexy, downright filthy love song, depending on your reading, and any rigorous allegorical interpretation of it needs to begin at that level with the sweaty encounter between the Shulamite and her beloved. In the thirteenth century such commentaries would have been quite rare.

There are many many commentaries on the Song of Songs, but among the most influential for both Christian and Jewish commentators and especially translators would have been the Sephardi Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167), and the French Rabbi Rashi of Troyes (1040-1105). Ibn Ezra was an Andalusi polymath who fled persecution at the hands of the radical Almohad dynasty in the 1140s. He fled North across the Pyrenees, where he was able to parlay his Andalusi education into a brilliant career as an itinerant intellectual. In addition to his commentary on the Song of Songs he wrote a series of books on scientific and religious topics and is still to this day an important reference for Jewish rabbinics. Ibn Ezra insisted on a grammatical and literal reading as a sound basis for allegorical and midrashic interpretation. Rashi likewise spends a good deal of time on the poem’s philology, and is known for his careful attention to the vernacular French of his time. It should therefore not surprise that scholars working to translate the Song of Songs into their own vernacular should incorporate Rashi’s explanations in their approach to the text.

What does it mean, then, for a translation to be between Christian and Jewish traditions of biblical interpretation? Let’s consider for a moment what kind of text this Song of Songs itself purports to be. The General estoria is not meant to be a religious document. It was not written for use in the Church and is not per se a ‘sacred’ text. It comes from the scriptorium of a Christian king, yet one who is known to be intellectually open minded, and who ordered, in addition to his corpus of scientific translations, Castilian translations of the Qur’an, the Hebrew scriptures, and even the Zohar, which was probably compiled during his reign. He even established school of Arabic studies in Seville to train future translators, diplomats, and polemicists. But the General estoria is just that, a history book, one that means to account for human history from Biblical prehistory to modernity. As such it approach to the Song of Songs skews to the historical and away from the allegorical, an approach that was highly suspect and potentially heretical —if it had been a religious text, which is was not. The compilers apply this approach in their theory of the order of composition of the Solomonic books, Song of Songs, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes:

Solomon as a wise aged king by the Russian artist Isaak Asknaziy (1856-1902) Source: wikipedia

Solomon as a wise aged king by the Russian artist Isaak Asknaziy (1856-1902)
Source: wikipedia

Agora, comoquier que los santos padres ordenaron en la Biblia en otro logar los cuatro libros que Salomón fizo, nós por la razón que los compuso Salomón tenemos por buen ordenamiento de los poner luego empós la su istoria d’él, porque vengan todos los sus fechos unos empós otros por orden, assí como él los fizo, nós catando los tiempos e las edades según que Salomón dixo las palabras d ‘estos libros, porque los dichos de Cantica canticorum acuerdan con la edad de la mancebía, cuando los omnes se trabajan de cantares e de cosas de solares, ordenamos en esta historia que fuesse primero Cantica canticorum. E otrossí porque los omnes desque sallen de aquella edat e entran a la otra de mayor seso e acuerda con esto el libro de los Proverbios pusimos éste empós Cantica canticorum. E otrossí porque aviene adelante edat de mayor seso que todas las otras que son passadas, e fabló Salomón en el libro de Sapiencia del saber de las cosas, nós ordenamos por ende este libro en el tercero logar empós estos otros dos, assí como tenemos que conviene. Aun otrossí, los omnes pues vienen a la vejez e veen que las cosas que an passadas que non son nada, desprecian el mundo e las sus cosas. E porque fabló Salomón d’este despreciamiento del mundo en el libro Eclesiastés pusiémoslo postremero d’estos cuatro libros.

Now, as the Holy Fathers elsewhere put in order the four books that Solomon wrote, we believe that the proper order of their composition is according to his own personal history, as they appear to come one after the other in the order he wrote them, we take into account the times and ages in which Solomon write the words of these books, for the sayings of the Song of Songs match the age of youth, when men write songs and pastoral compositions, we put the Song of Songs first in this history. And because when men leave that age and enter into the next one of better judgment, the book of Proverbs matches that one, and so we put it after the Song of Songs. And because next comes an age of greater judgment than the ones that come before it, and Solomon spoke in the book of Wisdom of knowledge, we therefore put that book in the third position after these other two, as we see fit. What’s more, men then come to old age and see that the things that have happened are worth nothing, and they come to despise worldly things. And because Solomon spoke of this in Ecclesiastes we put it in the final position of these four books.

This reordering flies in the face of Christian exegesis of the times, that explains the canonical ordering of the Solomonic books as a progression of ever more sophisticated grasp of revelation, culminating, not beginning, with the Song of Songs, the highest and most sacred expression of human wisdom regarding Divine revelation, a work that must pale in importance beside the more pragmatic Proverbs and the bummer Ecclesiastes. Surely only a mature man could have written such a sublime poem? For this very reason a number of commentators both Christian and Jewish recommend restricting readership of the Song to mature males, much as they would the reading of the Zohar in the medieval period.

Petrus Comestor presents the Bible Historiale to Archbishop Guillaume of Sens in the Bible Historiale Complétée (ca. 1370-1380). Source: wikipedia

Petrus Comestor presents the Bible Historiale to Archbishop Guillaume of Sens in the Bible Historiale Complétée (ca. 1370-1380). Source: wikipedia

So, either the compilers of the General estoria invented this psycho-social developmental approach from whole cloth or adapted it from another tradition. As it turns out, this approach to the Solomonic books is in Rashi’s commentary, in turn based on the interpretation found in Midrash Rabbah. This is an interesting turn of events, but not shocking exactly, and not confirmed. Just because Rashi said it doesn’t mean the General estoria got it from Rashi. Earlier Christian commentators borrowed from Jewish interpretations, and the compilers might have gotten it from one of them. Peter Comestor (d. 1178), who was born in the same city where Rashi lived, is known to have consulted Jewish commentators in compiling his massive Historica scholastica, a Latin universal history from which the General estoria borrows considerably. But Comestor did not include the Song of Songs in his opus, and made no such comments about its order within the Solomonic corpus, even though he was perfectly placed to have known some of Rashi’s students. But for now, let us leave open the question of how this bit of Jewish exegesis made its way into the General estoria and examine a few other examples.


Wine red head wrap by J. Frassini (

Wine red head wrap by J. Frassini (

A couple of these examples fall into the category of vernacularization, of making the literal translation of the Castilian more intelligible, more lexically or grammatically familiar to speakers of Castilian. For example, in book 4, verse 3 the poem describes the beloved’s lips as “sicut uitta coccinea” (like a scarlet ribbon), which is close to the Tankh’s ‘scarlet thread.’ Here the General estoria reads ‘toca de xamet,’ a cloth used as a woman’s head covering that the RAE defines as a ‘rica tela de seda, que a veces se entretejía de oro’ (a rich silk fabric, that is sometimes interwoven with threads of gold). The Castilian reading evokes a well-known and specific type of cloth that signifies luxury to the Castilian speaker, but departs somewhat in its formal sense from the Vulgate’s “ribbon” or the Tanakh’s “thread” in that it is no longer a narrow strip of red emphasizing the fineness of the beloved’s lips. Here the vernacular sensibility seems to trump the literal sense of the biblical text.

Turned bowl by Vancouver Island artist Dan Jerowsky (

Turned bowl by Vancouver Island artist Dan Jerowsky (

Elsewhere the translators seem to be glossing the Vulgate in order to make unfamiliar words or forms intelligible to the Castilian reader. For example in book 5 verse 13, speaking again of the beloved’s lips, the poem says “labia eius lilia distillantia murram primam” (her lips are lilies that distill prime myrrh), for which the Castilian reads “Los sus labros destellantes de la primera mirra (mejor que todas las otras).” Here the Castilian version glosses the meaning of “primam” as an indicator of high quality. In book 7 verse 2 the poet describes the lover’s bellybutton as “crater tornatilis” (a turned bowl), which the Castilian renders as “vaso tornable (como fecho en torno)” adding the parenthetical gloss that explains the adjective ‘tornable,’ itself a very direct rendering of the ostensibly oscure latin ‘tornatilis.’ It is noteworthy that the compilers do not seem to resort to the Tanakh in order to resolve obscure readings of the Vulgate, as they do elsewhere in the General estoria.

"Some say it is the color of the sky" Aigue-marine. Provenance: Shigar Skardu, Pakistan. Source: Wikipedia

“Some say it is the color of the sky” Aigue-marine. Provenance: Shigar Skardu, Pakistan. Source: Wikipedia

Finally, in a very few cases the compilers seem be adding details that are absent in the Vulgate. In book 2, verse 10 the poem exhorts the beloved to come away with him: “Levántate e apressúrate, mi amiga, mi paloma fermosa, e vein.” The term ‘formonsa mea’ (my beauty) is emended in the Castilian as ‘paloma fermosa’ (beautiful dove), a detail that is absent from both Vulgate and Tanakh. This variant does not appear in any of the commentaries I have consulted, so we can tentatively conclude that it is an artistic innovation of the compilers, perhaps another example of vernacularization if ‘mi paloma fermosa’ were a common term of endearment in thirteenth-century Castile.

In at least one example, such emendations appear to be inspired by, or at leat correspond with commentary by specific Jewish exegetes. In book 5, verse 14, the poem describes the hands of the beloved as “llenas de las piedras preciosas jacintos, que son de color de cielo.” Neihter the Vulgate nor the Tanakh comment on the color of the stones, which most modern translators render as Beryl (beryllium aluminium cyclosilicate). However, Abraham ibn Ezra notes in his commentary on the Song of Songs that “some say this stone is the color of the sky” (Bloch 123) a coincidence that suggests, but cannot confirm, that the compilers of the General estoria relied at least in part on Jewish sources in carrying the Vulgate text of the Song of Songs over into Castilian.

In conclusion, the General estoria was the product of an anonymous team of translators working under the direction of Alfonso X, a king with a demonstrated interest in Jewish and Islamic traditions. The work’s Castilian translation of the Song of Songs cleaves very closely to the text of the Vulgate. The majority of instances where it does not are when the translators seem to be accommodating the vernacular sensibility of the Castilian audience. However, in at least two examples the Castilian seems to adapt Jewish approaches to the Song of Songs that contradict Christian doctrine and exegesis. We can only tentatively conclude that Jewish scholars, or Christian scholars familiar with Jewish sources such as the commentaries of Rashi and Abraham in Ezra, adapted material from these sources in their translations because they felt that the positions of these Jewish commentators better served the goals of the translation as they understood it.


  • Block, Richard, ed. and trans. Ibn Ezra’s Commentary on The Song of Songs. Abraham Ibn Ezra. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion, 1982.
  • Ekman, Erik. “Translation and Translatio: ‘Nuestro Latín’ in Alfonso El Sabio’s General Estoria.” Bulletin of Spanish Studies (2015): 1–16. Print.
  • Enrique-Arias, Andrés, ed. Biblia Medieval. <>
    18 October 2015. Web.
  • Fishbane, Michael A, ed. Song of Songs : The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2015. Print.
  • Hailperin, Herman. Rashi and the Christian Scholars. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1963. Print.
  • Morreale, Margherita. “Vernacular Scriptures in Spain.” The Cambridge History of the Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969. 465–491. Print.
  • Shereshevsky, Esra. “Hebrew Traditions in Peter Comestor’s ‘Historia Scholastica’: I. Genesis.” The Jewish Quarterly Review 59.4 (1969): 268–289. Print.
  • Smalley, Beryl. The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages. Vol. 3rd. Oxford, England: B. Blackwell, 1983. Print.
  • Wacks, David A. “Between Secular and Sacred: Abraham Ibn Ezra and the Song of Songs.” Wine, Women and Song: Hebrew and Arabic Literature of Medieval Iberia. Ed. Michelle M. Hamilton, Sarah J. Portnoy, and David A. Wacks. Newark, DE: Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs, 2004. 47–58.

This entry is a version of a paper I gave (virtually) at the 2015 Texas Medieval Association, in a session on “Iberian Jewish Exegesis and the Alphonsine Scriptorium organized by Prof. David Navarro and Moderated by Prof. Yasmine Beale-Rivaya (both of Texas State – San Marcos). Prof. Navarro and Prof. Francisco Peña (UBC Kelowna) also contributed papers. The presenters are working together on a collaborative, online digital critical edition of the Biblical material in Alfonso X’s General e grant estoria titled “Confluence of Religious Cultures in Medieval Iberian Historiography: A Digital Humanities Project” and supported by funding from Social Science and Humanities Research Council, Government of Canada


Active Learning techniques for the (medieval) literature classroom

Active learning classroom at Berkeley's Educational Technology Center (2014)

Active learning classroom at Berkeley’s Educational Technology Center (2014)

This term in my undergraduate medieval seminar I tried something new: I did not lecture at all. Instead, I assigned a secondary reading for each primary reading, then informed the students that the secondary reading was the lecture, and that when they came to class I would assume that they understood it perfectly (and would hold them responsible for its contents), but would answer as many questions as they had about it. Similarly, I made it clear that I would assume they understood the primary readings perfectly unless they had specific clarifying questions about it. I then dedicated a Q&A session for primary and secondary texts in each class meeting, and the rest of the session to ‘active learning’ activities in which the students engaged with the readings in various ways, as follows below. I’ve compiled them into a pdf you can download here for your convenience.

I don’t know if this approach is or is not more pedagogically sound than the traditional lecture. I do know that is was a change of pace for me, and that they appeared to be more engaged and less bored over the course of a three-hour seminar that met from 5:00-8:00pm. I would love to hear about your own experiences trying out these kinds of activities in the literature classroom.

The following techniques are slight modifications of active learning strategies that I found on websites like this one and this one. Many of them involve the use of 5×7 inch index cards, which are great for focusing attention, limiting output, and can be projected on a screen using a document camera, which is a simple, efficient way for using student-generated content to focus class attention.

Linguistic awareness: On an index card, Identify 3 characteristics of the medieval language in question (provided it is a vernacular language) in a passage on board, then render the passage into modern. You can also collect the cards and spot-teach interesting or problematic features on the board.

Summary: each pair is assigned two chapters to summarize, then writes summaries on board in order to form a summary of the entire reading.

Synthesis secondary/primary: Main idea of secondary reading: on an index card, write one sentence that expresses the main idea of the secondary reading. Then explain why it is useful for understanding the primary reading.

Linkage: In pairs. On an index card, write one short passage each from the primary and secondary texts. Prepare for five minutes. Explain how they are related. Instructor can project index card with document camera so that entire class can follow explanation.


Quiz: Each pair writes a quiz question for the reading, write it on the board. Class votes on top four questions then takes the quiz and reviews the answers in pairs, reporting back to group.

Role Play: In pairs, one student as Interviewer and one as a character (historical or fictional) from the primary reading. Each pair writes five questions and five answers for the character. Each answer is based on a citation from the primary text. Write citations on cards, interview conducted with notes but not reading directly from cards. Can give hilarious results.

Name that author: In two teams. On index cards, each team selects 10 characteristic quotes from each author that voice different ideas. Shuffle the cards and number them 1-20. On a separate card, keep a list linking each card to the correct author. Switch decks with other team, try to sort them by author. Student reads cards, student from opposing team tells them if it is correct. Third student tallies correct/incorrect guesess. Team with most correct guesses wins a prize.

BNF Paris MS Espagnol 36 f32r, detail

BNF Paris MS Espagnol 36 f32r, detail

Transcribe section of medieval manuscript: It is getting progressively easier to find decent quality images of the manuscripts of the texts we are teaching. I’ve found a transcription exercise is a good way to bring a long seminar to a tranquil landing.

Discussion of peer’s written assignment: A productive way to leverage a written assignment for classroom discussion. In pairs, explain your written analysis of the primary text to your partner. Join with a second pair; then each explains their partner’s analysis to the larger group of four. This is a nice structured way for students to exchange their ideas and analyses of the primary text.

Paraphrase academic Spanish: in pairs, choose a paragraph from the secondary reading. Write a paraphrase of it in normative Spanish on an index card. Then join with another pair and explain the paragraph.

Deconstruct the narrative: In pairs, select six short passages from the primary text and write them on six index cards. Do not write the page numbers on the cards. On a separate card, identify the passages by catch words and record the page numbers. Trade cards with another pair. Each pair tries to put the passages in the correct order.

predictionPrediction: On an index card, write three predictions for what will happen in the following chapters of the primary reading. Include justifications for your predictions. Students can then exchange predictions and report to the larger group, or instructor can post individual predictions on a document camera to share with the class.

Questions about readings: On an index card, write your question about a specific passage in the reading (primary or secondary). Note the page number and location of passage. Instructor collects cards and reads/answers selected questions.

Flash analysis: Instructor shows a short passage from primary text on board/screen. In pairs or groups, students identify the passage and explain its significance. Give them a set time to work on their analysis. This can be gamified if you hand out a different passage to each group on a slip of paper, gives everyone five minutes, and then shows each of the passages on a slide as the groups present their analyses. Then the other teams can write down ratings for each analysis; ratings are aggregated at the end.

3-2-1 for secondary reading: In pairs, on an index card, write 3 key concepts from secondary reading, one example from the primary reading to illustrate one of the concepts, and 1 question. Students or instructor can then write the key concepts on the board.

debateFormal debate: Instructor gives class a resolution based on their reading of the primary text. Class divides into four teams (A vs B, C vs D), for two separate debates. In each debate, one team argues pro, the other team argues contra. In each debate, one student from the teams not currently debating keeps time and another tallies votes on chalkboard. Instructor places the following conditions on participants: (1) All members of each team must speak during each turn, (2) Everything they say must be supported by specific textual quotation (primary or secondary). (3) In your rebuttals, you must address specific points made by the opposing team and demonstrate why they are not valid. Debate format: (1) A presents pro argument (4 min.), (2) B presents contra argument (4 min.), (3), A rebuts contra argument (2 min.), (4) B rebuts pro argument (2 min.). Teams C and D vote on winner of debate. Repeat for teams C and D, with A and B voting on winner.