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.

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.

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 form part of an international group of scholars working on the Biblical material in the General estoria.


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.





















Ziyad ibn ‘Amir al-Kinani and El Libro del Caballero Zifar

[You can also read the full-length article version, “Popular Andalusi literature and Castilian fiction: Ziyad ibn ‘Amir al-Kinani, 101 Nights, and Caballero ZifarRevista de Poética Medieval 29 (311-335):]

In the last post I discussed the thirteenth-century Ziyad ibn ‘Amir al-Kinani as an Andalusi chivalric novel, one that has particular implications for how we understand the reception of Arthurian narrative in the Iberian Peninsula. In this post, I write about how Ziyad ibn ‘Amir al-Kinani is of particular interest for students of the Libro del Cavallero Zifar (Toledo, 1300).

Do you believe in fairies?

Do you believe in fairies?

There are a number of coincidences between Ziyad and Zifar. Most of them are on the level of narrative motif. Two episodes in particular are present in both texts but absent from popular Arabic literature in general: those of the supernatural wife who bears the hero a son, and of the underwater realm. These motifs are united in the Arthurian “Lady of the Lake”, and here find expression in Zifar in the episode of the Caballero Atrevido (González, Zifar 241–251). In Ziyad, they appear in the episodes of Ziyad’s marriage to the Princess Alchahia, mistress of the submerged castle of al-Laualib (Fernández y González 22–26), and in the following episode of his marriage to a “dama genio”, or enchanted lady (Fernández y González 30–31).



This underwater castle in the online world Secondlife can be yours for only L$4,500

This underwater castle in the online world Secondlife can be yours for only L$4,500

First Ziyad arrives at the castle, which each night submerges into the lake:

—When the sun rises above the horizon, the castle begins to raise from the depths of the waters, until it reaches the level of the surface of the earth. Then horses cross a vast bridge to go out and graze, and the cows and flocks of sheep to pasture. As evening falls, when the sun leans toward the west, the flocks return, and the cows and horses, and they all sink again into the water, that is, enter into Al-laualib keep, submitting themselves to its movements. (Fernández y González 19).

There Ziyad is greeted by its mistress, who is dressed as a knight. She challenges him to combat, in the course of which Ziyad notices with some surprise that his opponent is female. Finally, he defeats her and proposes marriage. She accepts and he becomes her King and lord of the submerged castle. In the following episode, Ziyad encounters an enchanted lady who bears him a son and then releases Ziyad after the boy is two years of age. One day Ziyad goes out hunting a beautiful gazelle, and becomes lost in the woods. What follows is a perfectly conventional encounter of the hero with an enchanted fairy so common in Western folkloric tradition (Thompson 1:382–384, 3:40–42, ) and abundant in French Arthurian texts (Guerreau-Jalabert 30, 62; Ruck 167, 173):


When the star [i.e., the gazelle] was hidden, I saw that it was climbing a high hill, where a road led that looked more like an ant path or the side of a beehive, she continued her flight and I followed close behind, until I came to a grotto where she hid. I dismounted and entered the grotto to give chase, and the darkness surrounded me; but in its midst I spied a damsel, radiant as the midday sun in a cloudless sky (Fernández y González 29).

The woman, Jatifa-al-horr, describes herself as “a good Jinn who believes in the Qur’an” (Fernández y González 30) (Believing jinn who marry humans are also mentioned in the 1001 Nights) (El-Shamy 69). In this way the compiler brings the Arthurian supernatural wife motif, one also present in Zifar, into line with the values of the Islamic textual community, by giving the supernatural a Quranic point of reference. She then reveals that she appeared to Ziyad in the form of a gazelle and enchanted him so that he would follow her to her hidden castle.

"A good jinn who believes in the Qur'an"

“A good jinn who believes in the Qur’an”

In these two episodes the “lady of the lake” motif is broken out into two separate episodes, each containing elements of the well-known Arthurian motif found also in Zifar. There is a good amount of speculation among critics as to the sources of these motifs, ranging from “Oriental” to “Celtic” to “Hispanic” (González, Reino lejano 103 n 25; Deyermond). It certainly is curious that the same two motifs, the only fantastic motifs in all of Zifar, whose source is contested by critics and still an open question, should appear in an Arabic manuscript from the same region written some 70 years prior to the composition of Zifar.

Depending on how we read this evidence, it could lend credence to a number of different theories about Zifar. On the one hand, if we belive the motifs are Celtic in origin, we should suppose their transmission to Ziyad through Arthurian tradition to Ziyad and thence to Zifar. This would ironically corroborate both the argument that Zifar relied on Arabic sources, and the argument for the Arthurian-Celtic sources of the fantastic episodes in Zifar.

Historical storytelling, Living History Workshops, Kent, UK

Historical storytelling, Living History Workshops, Kent, UK

The existence of the popular storytelling tradition attested by the 101 Nights manuscript and Ziyad suggests yet another model for understanding the presence of “Arabic” source material in Zifar, in the episodes of the Caballero atrevido (‘the Fearless Knight’) and the Yslas dotadas (‘The Enchanted Islands’). (González, Zifar 240–251 and 409–429).

Suppose there were a tradition of 101 and/or 1001 Nights-style storytelling that was based on dynamic, ever-changing live performances (imagine a genre or tradition instead of a manuscript). Authors introduced new tales, adapted other tales from other traditions, and dressed them in the fictional trappings of the popular storytelling tradition of the Arab world that then produced both the 101 Nights and the 1001 Nights. We have already established that Castilian authors such as Don Juan Manuel drew on Andalusi oral narrative tradition (Wacks, “Reconquest”). What if the author of Zifar had done likewise, relying not on Andalusi manuscripts of learned Arabic texts but rather of stories told and retold within the context of the Nights tradition? The apparent Arabization of names and place names that has led critics to suppose an Arabic origin for Zifar may well be instead a reflection of a shared storytelling culture by which Castilian authors adapt material learned from storytellers in their written works, conserving and at times Hispanizing (or straight out corrupting) personal and place names, simply because that was how the Castilian author heard them.

Poetry slam, Nuyorican Poets Cafe, NYC

Poetry slam, Nuyorican Poets Cafe, NYC

Arabic texts of the time also reflect a shared culture of storytelling. As we have seen, place names of faraway, exotic locations such as China vacillate between Romanized and Arabized versions (Ott 258). Like the author of Zifar, the compiler of 101 Nights was drawing on a live, multilingual storytelling performance tradition in which performers told tales alternately in Andalusi Arabic or in Castilian, and likely at times some combination of both. This suggests a world of code-switching storytellers who moved effortlessly from Arabic to Castilian and back again. Only when viewed through the lens of the literary manuscript does this culture appear as two separate cultures, who communicate with difficulty through translation and adaptation. Just as with Iberian Hebrew poets who were perfectly versed in Romance popular culture, but who were compelled by literary convention to write almost exclusively in Hebrew, our authors and compilers of 101 Nights, Ziyad, and Zifar recorded in monolingual form a tradition that was in practice at least bilingual and probably to a certain extent interlingual as is today’s US Latino culture, where English, Spanish, and Spanglish coexist on a continuum of linguistic practice.


The evidence Ziyad presents is compelling on two counts. On the one hand, Ziyad’s analogues of Arthurian motifs episodes found in Zifar complicate the question of Zifar’s putative Arabic sources. We must choose one of the following: did the Arthurian material pass from the French to Ziyad and thence to Zifar? This would be a delicious but perfectly Iberian irony for the Zifar to have received Arthurian material from an Andalusi text. Or alternatively, did both Ziyad and Zifar take the material directly from the French? Or, a third and in my opinion more likely alternative: that the Arthurian material entered the Iberian oral narrative practice, where both Ziyad and Zifar collected it. This thesis finds strong support in scholars’ assessment of the Andalusi storytelling practice reflected in the 101 Nights manuscript.

Ziyad and 101 Nights both attest to a corpus of Andalusi written popular literature giving voice to a specifically Iberian (or at least Maghrebi) experience vis-a-vis the Muslim East. This corpus is largely latent and we await quality critical editions and translations into other languages of Ziyad, the other 11 texts in Escorial Árabe MS 1876, the 101 Nights, and other texts as they come to light. Our findings are necessarily tentative, based as they are on translations, until these editions come to light. What we can state, however, is the following: Ziyad provides us with new, earlier examples of the penetration of Arthurian themes and motifs in the Iberian Peninsula that predate both the Castilian translations of the Arthurian romances as well as their adaptation in Caballero Zifar. These versions circulated in a multi-lingual, multi-confessional Iberian narrative practice that included both oral and written performances. All of the above changes our understanding of Caballero Zifar and potentially many other early works of Castilian prose fiction as part of a literary polysystem with an oral component that is underrepresented in the sources yet important for understanding the development of literary narrative in Iberia.

Works Cited

  • El-Shamy, Hasan M. A Motif Index of The Thousand and One Nights. Bloomington, Ind: Indiana University Press, 2006. Print.
  • Fernández y González, Francisco, trans. Zeyyad ben Amir el de Quinena. Madrid: Museo Español de Antigüedades, 1882. Print.
  • González, Cristina. “El cavallero Zifar” y el reino lejano. Madrid, España: Editorial Gredos, 1984. Print.
  • —, ed. Libro del Caballero Zifar. Madrid: Cátedra, 1984. Print.
  • Guerreau-Jalabert, Anita. Index des motifs narratifs dans les romans arthuriens français en vers (XIIe-XIIIe siècles). Geneva: Droz, 1992. Print.
  • Ott, Claudia. “Nachwort.” 101 Nacht. Zurich: Manesse Verlag, 2012. 241–263. Print.
  • Ruck, E. H. An Index of Themes and Motifs in 12th-Century French Arthurian Poetry. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1991. Print.
  • Thompson, Stith. Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. Rev. and enl. ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1932. Print.
  • Wacks, David A. “Reconquest Colonialism and Andalusi Narrative Practice in Don Juan Manuel’s Conde Lucanor.” diacritics 36.3-4 (2006): 87–103. Print.

This post is based on a paper I gave at the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Thanks very much to Anita Savo for organizing the panel “Routes of Translation in the Medieval Mediterranean.”

Ziyad ibn ‘Amir al-Kinani: Popular Andalusi literature and the Arthurian tradition

There is very little manuscript evidence of the popular (non-courtly) literature of al-Andalus (Muslim Spain). For this reason it is difficult to assess its importance for the development of Castilian literature, and more broadly, for our understanding of medieval Iberian literary practice as an interlocking set of systems that includes a number of linguistic, religious, and political groups. Ziyad ibn ‘Amir al-Kinani (Granada, 1234) is a work of Andalusi popular fiction that sheds new light on the reception of Arthurian material in the Iberian Peninsula. Ziyad in particular is a fascinating hybrid of Arabic epic, popular Arabic tale, and Chivalric romance. It is the first example of an original work of prose fiction written in Iberia to make use of Arthurian material, one that predates the Castilian translations of Arthurian texts by nearly a century.

Escorial MS Árabe 1876, f1v-2r

Escorial MS Árabe 1876, f1v-2r

Ziyad ibn ‘Amir al-Kinani

Ziyad is the tale of the adventures of the eponymous hero Ziyad ibn ‘Amir al-Kinani and is set in a flashback at the court of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, where the hero is being held captive. Ziyad has been summoned by the Caliph to regale him with stories of his own adventures, in a narrative frame derived from the 1001 Nights and familiar to readers of medieval Castilian literature from the thirteenth-century work Calila e Digna, and later from Don Juan Manuel’s Conde Lucanor. The character Ziyad ibn ‘Amir al-Kinani is not historical. However, as we will see, the author took pains to situate the fictional world of Ziyad within the historical and literary traditions of the the Arab Islamic world.

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

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

Ziyad and Arabic literary tradition

Much as the chivalric Romances in Western Latin tradition are linked to earlier chansons de gestes and classical epic material (Brownlee Scordilis 254; Fuchs 39) Ziyyad ibn ‘Amir is likewise in some ways an evolution of the popular Arab epic (sira), beginning with the ‘Ayam al-Arab, the account of the first battles of Muslim expansion protagonized by Muhammad and his companions. By the thirteenth century a second generation of sira develops, one that recounts tales of later heroes of Islamic expansion and their struggles with enemies in the Islamic world, Byzantium, and against the Franks (Latin Crusaders). These include the Sirat Dhat al-Himma, and Sirat al-Zahir Baybars, that flourished in Arabic during the time when Ziyad appeared (Heath, “Other Sīras” 327–328).

The sirat were popular oral epic traditions that produced little in the way of literary manuscripts until modernity. This is an important fact in understanding the relationship of Ziyad vis-a-vis the medieval novel in French and Spanish. While the chivalric romance has its roots in oral epic traditions, it evolves into a courtly literary tradition relatively early, while the Arab epic does not. This may be because vernacular literature does not develop significantly in Arabic until much later than in the romance languages.

2014 production of 1001 Nights by Center for Puppetry Arts, Atlanta (Source: Flying Carpet Theatre Co.)

2014 production of 1001 Nights by Center for Puppetry Arts, Atlanta (Source: Flying Carpet Theatre Co.)

The other Andalusi popular literary texts of the time, such as the 1001 Nights, and its Western variant the 101 Nights, were set at court, but were in no way a courtly product. Rather, they reflected the values of mercantile society, and populated the court of Harun al-Rashid with merchants, artisans, and other members of the middle class (Sallis 1; Ott 260). Ziyad shares the popular linguistic features with the 101 Nights (Ott 266–267), but shows us a world populated with knights and ladies and the occasional slave, a world that more resembles that of the French chivalric romance than the 1001 Nights, with the key exception of its being set in the Muslim East. In this way, Ziyad is a sort of hybrid of the Arab epic, the chivalric novel, and the popular Arabic narrative Nights tradition.

Ziyad is more like the heroes of the chivalric novel in that his excellence is a reflection of his aristocratic background, and as such reinforces the current social order, which is typical of medieval romances (Auerbach 139; Segre 139; Brownlee Scordilis 253). This is perfectly logical when one considers the authorship and audencies of the texts: the popular sirat were composed and transmitted orally, and have very few medieval manuscript witnesses. The same can be said for the Castilian epic Cantar de Mio Cid, which is thought by many critics to be of popular origin. Popular audiences are more likely to promote the transmission of underdog heroes than are courtly audiences.

Ziyad and the Arthurian tradition in Iberia

Clive Owen as King Arthur in 2004

Clive Owen as King Arthur in 2004

In order to understand how Ziyad relates to the chivalric romance in Iberia we need to know a bit about the reception of Arthurian romance on the Peninsula. When do Iberian authors begin to adapt literary representations of courtly behaviors such as are novelized in the Arthurian romances and the songs of the Troubadours? Our best-known examples are of course the Spanish chivalric novels of the sixteenth century, beginning with Montalvo’s Amadís de Gaula (1508), but there is significant evidence of Iberian reception Arthurian-style courtly discourse beginning in the twelfth century, when Iberian troubadours, writing in a variety of Peninsular literary languages, begin to make reference to Lancelot and Tristan in their verses (Entwistle 12; Thomas 22–23). By the first third of the fourteenth century, Peninsular readers have access to Castilian translations of the French narratives of the search for the Holy Grail. However, Ziyad is the first full-fledged work of narrative fiction in the Peninsula to present a chivalric world of such clear Arthurian influence, predating the Castilian translations of Arthurian texts nearly a century.

Ibn Khaldun on the Tunisian 10-dinar note (Source: Wikipedia)

Ibn Khaldun on the Tunisian 10-dinar note (Source: Wikipedia)

According to the fourteenth-century political theorist Ibn Khaldun, it is natural for nations who are dominated politically by their neighbor to imitate the cultural practices (including the literature) of the dominant kingdom:


a nation dominated by another, neighbouring nation will show a great deal of assimilation and imitation. At this time, this is the case in Spain [al-Andalus]. The Spaniards [Andalusis] are found to assimilate themselves to the Galician nations [Galicia, Asturias, Castile, Navarra) in their dress, their emblems, and most of their customs and conditions. (Ibn Khaldun 116)

Detail from ceiling of Sala de Reyes, Alhambra (Source: El Patronato de la Alhambra y Generalife)

Detail from ceiling of Sala de Reyes, Alhambra (Source: El Patronato de la Alhambra y Generalife)

This idea is born out by other evidence in the plastic arts and to a lesser extent in literary sources. A brief overview of all other forms of commerce and exchange, including commerce, coinage, architectural styles, and eyewitness reports to the chivalric culture of Nasrid Granada demonstrate that the borders between Granada and Castile were culturally porous. Cynthia Robinson has described the thirteenth-century Granadan romance Hadith Bayad wa-Riyad as a kind of Andalusi roman idyllique (Robinson, Medieval Andalusian 172–182). Arthurian chivalric motifs even penetrated the Alhambra itself, as Cynthia Robinson demonstrates in her study of the ceilings of the Hall of Justice (Robinson, “Arthur”). This movement of Arthurian themes and chivalric sensibilities supports Ibn Khaldun’s assertion that the Granadans of his day were assimilated, to some extent, to the culture of the Christian North.

Alhambra, Granada (Source: Wikipedia)

Alhambra, Granada (Source: Wikipedia)

In Ziyad ibn ‘Amir al-Kinani we see a number of traits typical of the chivalric romance but less common in popular Arabic literary tradition. For example, there abound detailed descriptions of architecture and especially interiors, such as the castle of the princess Beautiful Archer where Sadé is being held captive:

I saw a castle whiter than a dove, whose high walls provided more shade than the clouds, built, for the most part, of carved plaster [like the Alhambra], stone, and carved wood. It was also built from rare bricks, crystals, and marble; it was surrounded by gardens planted with a variety of trees and at its highest point had three towers of fine sandalwood, where damsels, granted by God with beauty, grace, and happiness, played ouds and zithers. The wall of the palace was one hundred times the height of a man, and its diameter would have been eighty thousand arms’ length. (Fernández y González 13)

 Medieval caricature of the Alexander-Porus battle ("Alexander defeats King Porus in single combat"(West Flanders; c. 1325-1335) (Source: 2nd Look)

Medieval caricature of the Alexander-Porus battle (“Alexander defeats King Porus in single combat”(West Flanders; c. 1325-1335) (Source: 2nd Look)

Descriptions of knightly combat, such as the battle between the lord of al-Laualib castle and Sinan ben Malic, are also strikingly similar to those found in chivalric novels:

They attacked each other with lances until these broke, and then took to wounding each other with swords until these were dulled, then wrestled. They looked each other in the eyes, rubbed stirrups, and although their arms tired and their brows sweated, they continued to struggle for quite a long time. (Fernández y González 20)

In addition to these we can see in Ziyad something else characteristic of the Western chivalric romance: a consciousness and discourse of the chivalric code itself. The characters do not simply act according to the chivalric code, they discuss and reflect upon it. When Ziyad sneaks into the camp of Alchamuh and his daughter princess Beautiful Archer he reprimands Alchamuh to his daughter’s face: “I behaved correctly with him, freeing him from being struck by the lance in the presence of the Arab tribes [ie saving him face], and he repays me, in turn, robbing me of my wife in my absence, and capturing and killing my subjects and relations” (Fernández y González 12).


Ziyad and 101 Nights both attest to a corpus of Andalusi written popular literature giving voice to a specifically Iberian (or at least Maghrebi) experience vis-a-vis the Muslim East. This corpus is largely latent and we await quality Arabic editions and translations into other languages of Ziyad, the other 11 texts in Escorial Árabe MS 1876, the 101 Nights, and other texts as they come to light. Our findings are necessarily tentative, based as they are on translations, until such editions come to light. What we can state, however, is the following: Ziyad provides us with new, earlier examples of the penetration of Arthurian themes and motifs in the Iberian Peninsula that predate both the Castilian translations of the Arthurian romances.


  • Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton: Princeton University, 1953. Print.
  • Brownlee Scordilis, Marina. “Romance at the Crossroads: Medieval Spanish Paradigms and Cervantine Revisions.” The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance. Ed. Marina Scordilis Brownlee and Kevin Brownlee. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 253–266. Print.
  • Entwistle, William. The Arthurian Legend in the Literatures of the Spanish Peninsula. New York: Phaeton Press, 1975. Print.
  • Fernández y González, Francisco, trans. Zeyyad ben Amir el de Quinena. Madrid: Museo Español de Antigüedades, 1882. Print.
  • Fuchs, Barbara. Romance. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
  • Heath, Peter. “Other Sīras and Popular Narratives.” Arabic Literature in the Post-Classical Period. Ed. Roger Allen and D.S. Richards. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 319–329. Print.
  • Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Trans. Franz Rosenthal. London,: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1978. Print.
  • Ott, Claudia. “Nachwort.” 101 Nacht. Zurich: Manesse Verlag, 2012. 241–263. Print.
  • Robinson, Cynthia. “Arthur in the Alhambra? Narrative and Nasrid Courtly Self-Fashioning in The Hall Of Justice Ceiling Paintings.” Medieval Encounters 14.2 (2008): 164–198. Print.
  • —. Medieval Andalusian Courtly Culture in the Mediterranean: Hadith Bayad Wa-Riyad. London: Routledge, 2007. Print.
  • Sallis, Eva. Sheherazade through the Looking Glass: The Metamorphosis of the Thousand and One Nights. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 1999. Print.
  • Segre, Cesare. “What Bakhtin Left Unsaid: The Case of the Medieval Romance.” Romance: Generic Transformation from Chrétien de Troyes to Cervantes. Ed. Kevin Brownlee and Marina Scordilis Brownlee. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1985. 23–46. Print.
  • Thomas, Henry. Spanish and Portuguese Romances of Chivalry; the Revival of the Romance of Chivalry in the Spanish Peninsula, and Its Extension and Influence Abroad,. Cambridge: University Press, 1920. Print.

This post is based on talks at Yale University on April 23rd and 24th, 2015. Thanks very much to the Program in Medieval Studies and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese for their invitations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aragonese expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean

The Crown of Aragon in 1441 (source: Wikipedia)

The Crown of Aragon in 1441 (source: Wikipedia)

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

Arms of Valencia (source: Wikipedia)

Arms of Valencia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Islam in Tirant

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is she or isn't she?

Is she or isn’t she?

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

Pal, you're no Amadis de Gaula

Pal, you’re no Amadis de Gaula

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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