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

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

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

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

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

General estoria prologo

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

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 Typically when a Christian author incorporates Jewish sources, they do not cite them, unless they are writing a polemic text meant to refute the Jewish source in question.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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wine red head wrap by J. Frassini (

Wine red head wrap by J. Frassini (

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

Turned bowl by Vancouver Island artist Dan Jerowsky (

Turned bowl by Vancouver Island artist Dan Jerowsky (

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Active Learning techniques for the (medieval) literature classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

BNF Paris MS Espagnol 36 f32r, detail

BNF Paris MS Espagnol 36 f32r, detail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





















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.

Some thoughts on Asturian mythology

The following is the text of a talk I gave at the University of Oregon Osher Center for Lifelong Learning on Dec. 10, 2014. My thanks to the Osher Center for the invitation.

horreo 01Typically when we think of Spain we think of Andalucía: bullfights, flamenco, Moorish monuments such as the Alhambra, and so forth. Maybe we think of Barcelona, the Mediterranean, and the modernist architecture of Antonio Gaudí.  Today I am pleased to talk to you about another corner of Spain, one that has very little to do with these images. Asturias is in central northern Spain, tucked in between the rugged Atlantic coast and the Cantabrian mountain range. It is a part of Spain that historically has been geographically isolated from the rest of the Peninsula, and for centuries it looked culturally toward the Atlantic, Brittany, and the British Isles. Together with its neighbor Galicia to the West, with its famed pilgrimage destination Santiago de Compostela, terminus of the Camino de Santiago or Road of Santiago, Asturias is the Spain on the so-called Celtic Rim. Culturally Asturias has much in common with Ireland and Wales. The local accent is a sort of brogue. The local alcoholic beverage of choice is sidra or cider, made from apples grown in local orchards for at least two thousand years. Asturian traditional architecture is decorated with symbols common to the Celtic world such as the trisquel or triple spiral, the hexapetala or hex, most frequently seen on granaries horreos in Asturian language), and traditional Asturian songs are accompanied by drum and gaita or bagpipe. In fact, Asturias may be the only place in the world where you can play castanets as you dance to a bagpipe.



A very interesting aspect of this shared Celtic culture is the popular mythology. Some of the traditional supernatural beings in Asturian popular traditions are familiar to us from their insular counterparts we know from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall, in popularizing versions in school texts, films, and illustration traditions. The dragons, fairies, and satyrs of Celtic tradition are all here, as are the domestic tricksters (leprechauns), known as trasgus in Asturian, and the lord of the storms or ñuberu. These beings lived in the popular verbal arts of storytelling and song, and are rooted in specific communities and geographic locations, as we will discuss further on.

Asturias has the distinction within Spain of having the most robust popular mythological traditions in the country. By this I mean that there were and are more Asturians who were active participants in local folk traditions, more regional pride in these traditions, and regional institutions that promote the study of local mythological traditions in primary and secondary schools as well as at the university level. Other state agencies have followed suit. The Asturian tourism agency published a promotional video in 2004 that featured a friendly group of mythological beings flying around on the back of a dragon, while celebrating the birthday of the fairy, who was turning 20 that day. In this way, traditions that were more durable than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe have been repurposed in the contemporary construction of an Asturian regional identity, both internally, in schools and cultural activities, as well as externally, in tourism materials and other media directed toward national and international audiences.

Asturias, paraíso natural

Asturias, paraíso natural

Why have Asturian mythological traditions survived while their counterparts elsewhere in Spain and Portugal have not? Geography, mostly. As I mentioned before, Asturias is wedged between the Atlantic and the Cantabrian mountain range, which was all but impassable in the winter until the arrival of modern roadways. There are small fishing villages on the coast that were more easily accessed by boat than by land route, and mountain villages that were inaccessible during the winter months until the beginning of the twentieth century.  This isolation prevented the intrusion of people and media from outside the region, and slowed the assimilation of Asturian language and culture to the Castilian majority culture of modern Spain. Also, the depressed economics of the region relative to other more affluent, industrialized areas of the North such as the Basque Country and Catalunya helped to shore up the survival of Asturian culture in the modern age.

intimate contact

intimate contact

Even within modern Asturias, folklorists report that non-industrialized populations are far more likely to have conserved local folk traditions. In particular, people whose daily life is centered on agricultural and pastoral rhythms are far more likely to be carriers of local traditions than those who work in mining or other industries. The daily intimate contact with nature, with the animal and human life cycle, and with the elements reinforces the meaning in traditional narratives that originally developed to give meaning to the relationship between humanity and nature. Noted Asturian ethnographer Alberto Álvarez Peña once commented that when we was in the field interviewing informants in the villages, typically a miner might know a handful of traditional stories, a farmer would have a more extensive repertoire, and a cowherd would have an impressive command of hundreds of traditional tales learned by memory.

Iglesia de la Santa Cruz, Cangas de Onís

Iglesia de la Santa Cruz, Cangas de Onís

The traditions we are about to discuss today all developed before the arrival of Christianity to the Iberian Peninsula, and indeed before the Romanization of the Peninsula. Before the importation of Roman Gods and later of the Christian God, these traditions served a purpose similar to that of the Roman gods and Christian saints that would come to replace them. That is, they were mediators between humans and their experience with the natural world, personifications of natural forces, and allies for humans whose power was to be respected and feared. For example, the spirit of a local river or lake, known in British tradition as a water fairy or pixie, was meant to allegorize the bivalent relationship between humans and water in nature. On the one hand, the river brings water and therefore life. It waters animals that we hunt and herd. It carries fish that we eat. But it can also kill by drowning or by contamination. The xana or fairy associated with a local river was therefore a way for humans to articulate this relationship with this aspect of nature. The xana is powerful but largely benevolent. She would often give villagers gifts of gold objects or money, but could also turn violent if provoked.

Many of the supernatural beings we will discuss here are similarly bivalent in nature: they can be benevolent but also represent the violence inherent in the natural world, over which we have little to no control. They were revered by Asturians and provided a framework for articulating one’s experiences with the local natural world. They served both as reference points and as explanations for our experience of the vicissitudes of nature.

The arrival of Christianity transformed these traditions significantly. In Catholic society all spiritual authority must rest with God, Christ, Mary, the Saints, and the Church itself. The transition from Roman religion to Christianity was somewhat smoothed by the fact that Rome itself adopted Christianity. This institutional framework meant that Roman clerics would develop a transitional theology by which the Roman gods were mapped onto Christian saints, who for some time embodied both beings until such time as the identity of the Roman god merged and was assimilated to the Christian saint with whom he or she was paired. A similar process obtained in parts of the New World, when for example, Catholic saints were mapped onto the Yoruba Orixas in the Caribbean, or onto Aztec or Maya gods in Mexico and Central America. These syncretic practices are common in moments of transition or biconfessionalism in various historical moments.

However, the Asturian mythological beings did not fare well in the transition to Christianity. They were simply regarded by Catholic priests as heresies, and were pitted against the new religion. In this way, they were demonized and their positive meanings eroded. The spirits of nature that gave and took away became malevolent creatures who brought death and destruction only, and the cult of the old mythology and many other aspects of folk life were branded as heresy by the Church. As a result, a branch of narrative tradition emerges in the Christian period in which local priests are portrayed as locked in struggle with the local dragon or other being, in an allegory of the struggle between the old belief systems and Christianity. Priests and inquisitors inveighed against the old beliefs as Christian heresies, and associated mythological beings with negative figures in Christian tradition. In this way the busgosu or satyr, the spirit of the forest, becomes associated with the Christian Satan, who likewise is portrayed as having horns, the legs and hooves of an animal, and a tail.

remote geography helps

remote geography helps

Given how relatively robust the Asturian mythological traditions are straight into the twentieth century, one has to wonder how robust Christianity itself was in the most isolated rural populations where these traditions thrived. Given that most descriptions of the spiritual life of such communities come to us from local priests, it is difficult to say to what extent they were believing Christians, and in particular what shape those beliefs may have taken. In the more remote mountain villages, mass is given only once a week by a priest who lives in the local town and rotates to the area villages. In one remote mountain village I visited, most locals were openly critical of the Church and reported that there were only two elderly women who regularly attended the weekly masses given by the local priest. This historical antipathy (or at least apathy) to the Church is certainly tied to modern politics as well. Asturias, and rural Asturias, was virulently anti-Franco, whose regime was aggressively and officially Catholic. As is well known, the Spanish Church was hardly a neutral party in the Spanish Civil War, during which the Church was hand in glove with Franco’s Fascists.  This fact is not forgotten in rural Asturias, and the village in question, Sotres, in the Picos de Europa range, supported anti-Franco partisans for some twenty years after Franco took power.

Alberto Álvarez Peña

Alberto Álvarez Peña

But modern politics is only partly to blame for the failure of Christianity to take root meaningfully in the lives of cowherds and other villagers in the remotest areas of Asturias. According to ethnographer Alberto Álvarez Peña, it is the rhythms of daily life, particularly of the shepherds and cowherds, that is responsible. These men and women spend long stretches of time in the heights above the villages pasturing their herds. Until the recent invention of motorized vehicles, many of them slept in the high pastures with their animals and only came down to the village in the late fall when the grass stopped growing. They were surrounded by nature, and it was the forces of nature that were the most immediate to them. They did not need an abstract, universal divinity such as Christ, or his priests, to explain to them how the world works and what their place in it was. They could observe these things every day in the changing of the seasons, which they experienced more fully than those in the village, and in the life cycles of the animals with whom they spent their days. Neither did they spend long enough in the villages or towns to be properly indoctrinated by the priests, who were in any event chronically understaffed. And due to Asturias’ very late and equally incomplete industrialization, these ways of life and the traditions they supported were able to survive well into the twentieth century, while industrialization and official national culture all but extinguished traditional mythological beliefs in the rest of the Iberian Peninsula.

What I’d like to do know is to talk about a few of the most well represented mythological traditions in Asturias. These are all local versions of beings you’ve probably heard about in other Celtic traditions. All of them have their roots in local geographies and beliefs, and all of them are metaphors for our experience living in nature.

La xana image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

La xana
image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

Perhaps the most well known being is the la xana (plural les xanes) or water fairy, who is associated with caves, grottos, rivers, and lakes. The xana is an almost entirely benevolent creature, human in appearance, who takes the shape of a very beautiful young woman with long hair dressed in traditional Asturian dress. The xana guards her treasures at the bottom of the lake, or in a cave, and is known to give humans gifts, usually skeins of golden yarn.  In the center of Asturias she is represented as a Christian, probably by dint of her appearance, but in the East she is thought to be a Muslim, a spirit of the wives of the Muslim forces stationed in Asturias in the eighth century, abandoned by her husband when the Christians captured Asturias. Alternatively, depending on our understanding of the Asturian word moro, or Moor. It can mean either “Muslim,” as in the Muslim forces of the Umayyad Caliphate in Cordoba who occupied Asturias during the first half of the eighth century, or “pagan”, by distinction from “Christian.” This sense give the xana a more ancient origin, placing her at least in pre-Christian Roman times. In any event, like all these beings the xana is thought to be of ancient or pre-historic origin, or at the very least not subject to time as are ordinary humans. Some believe the xana to be a distant memory of a local pre-Christian goddess, which is true of most of the more powerful mythological beings we will discuss. They were once local gods, each of whom represented a different aspect of nature just as the Romans and Greeks had their gods of fertility, of the sea, of the hunt, and so forth. As local pagan institutions were replaced by Roman and then Christian cults, these traditions were unmoored from their traditional frameworks and set loose in the popular imagination. That is, without a class of priests, druids, or shamans to actively shape and interpret the cults of local gods, the locals who carried the traditions were freer to reinterpret and transform them as they liked. We see this tendency, one might call it a de-institutionalization of myth, in the development of many of these traditions.

el cuélebre image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

el cuélebre
image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

After the xana, el cuélebre, (male snake, in Spanish culebre) or dragon is probably the best-known member of the Asturian pantheon. This creature, similar to the dragons of Anglo-Celtic tradition, lives on the outskirts of a settled area in a cave, and is an enormous serpent with wings and legs. The cuélebre comes out of its lair to wreak havoc on the daily workings of the villagers, destroying farming or fishing equipment, poisoning wells and springs, and demanding the sacrifice of herd animals and eventually of human virgins this is where the image of the knight rescuing the dragon comes from. In pre-Christian times the dragon would have been a nature deity whose violent nature would have been placated by the sacrifice of herd animals, much like the Biblical Hebrew God who demanded the sacrifice of lambs and cows on certain days of the year in order to guarantee the balance between the interests of humans and of nature. In Christian times, the sacrifice of Christ made all others irrelevant and therefore heretical, and in order to demonize the old deity, Christians began turning the traditional sacrifices of animals into human sacrifices, which could more easily be denounced as a perversion of Christian doctrine and therefore a heresy. Christianization also brought innovations in the local traditions of cuélebres in which villagers, tired of the dragons’ destructive habits and taste for livestock or young girls, called in a local priest or in some cases a hermit to put an end to the creature or at least put the fear of god into him so he would no longer venture from his cave. One of the ways the cuélebre would terrorize villagers would be to block the local water source with his body and demand a ransom of herd animals or young virgins in order to unblock the source. This suggests its origins as a god of nature, similar to those South Pacific gods of volcanoes who require sacrifices in order to guarantee the volcano will not erupt. The cuélebre, like the volcano god, is a metaphor for the relationship between humans and nature.

Such gods or beings before Christianity were often benevolent. Another function of the cuélebre is also to guard treasure, and in pre-Christian times the cuélebre would also, like the xana, give presents to humans who sought him out in his lair, usually located in a cave in a mountain outside of a settled area. With Christianization, the cuélebre also became demonized and its generous aspect was suppressed, probably through its association with the Edenic serpent in Christian tradition. Curiously, in local traditions the cuélebre is always located in a cave into whose opening the sun shines on the day of the Summer solstice, meaning that the cuélebre is associated with the thinning of the veil between this world and the next. Other supernatural creatures traditionally appear on the Summer solstice, such as the xana, who appears in popular ballads on St. John’s night, combing herself with a golden comb.

frog prince

pucker up

In one tradition, the xana enchants herself to become a cuélebre, and a human man must kiss her three times on the lips in order to turn her back into a xana, after which she rewards the human by marrying him and making him the head of a prestigious lineage. There are noble houses throughout Europe that tell such legends about their origins. These tales have their analogues in Greek legends about kings and heroes who are descended from the gods, and are a way to justify the feudal social order. That is, if one should ask why a given family deserves to rule over all the others, the answer is simple: we are descended from gods, and you are not! There is a vestigial version of this tradition in the tale of the princess and the frog, in which the princess must kiss a frog in order to break the enchantment and change the frog back into a prince. The movie franchise Shrek turned this tradition on its head by having the princess’ true nature be monstrous, while the enchantment turned her into a beautiful young human woman.

Oviedo resident dressed as a busgosu, Antroxu (Carnaval) 2013

Oviedo resident dressed as a busgosu, Antroxu (Carnaval) 2013

Another creature that lives in the forest and is known to wreak havoc on the lives of nearby villagers is el busgosu or satyr. The busgosu is the half-man, half-goat Lord of the forest, whose job is to protect the interests of the forest and regulate the relationship of humans with natural forces within it. He is an Asturian version of the Greek god Pan, who is also represented as half-goat and half-man, with horns, cloven hooves, and a tail.  Legends of the busgosu represent him as alternatively malevolent and benevolent. At times he helps shepherds who are lost in the wood and offers to repair their huts in bad weather. At other times he is more of a boogeyman who harasses or kills villagers lost in the wood. It is noteworthy here to point out the key difference in these two versions. In the former, positive version is told among shepherds, who spend the majority of their time away from town and are the least catechized population (and therefore the most likely to experience these beings as forces of nature rather than of evil). In Christian times, the busgosu became demonized, and it is no accident that modern representations of the Devil show us a half-man, half-goat, with horns and a tail.  Again, there is no room in the Christian cosmovision for competing gods, and so these gods must be demoted to demons or in the case of the busgosu, the Devil himself. We see vestiges of the idea of the busgosu and related beings as gods in Asturian traditions about the Devil or Demons giving humans important technologies. In one tradition the Devil gives humans the saw, which enables them to cut down trees and build homes. In another the Devil builds humans bridges over local rivers. These traditions are confused by the traditional beings’ more recent identity as devilish. It doesn’t make sense for the Devil to be building bridges and donating new technologies. But it does make sense for a nature god, who is sometimes dangerous but not benevolent per se to donate technologies to his obedient followers. The metaphor is clear: you may proceed with the business of developing your civilization only to the extent that you are respectful of nature. Under Christianity this metaphor is broken, and what is left is a strange idea that very basic technologies such as the saw and the bridge for some reason come from the devil. There are a number of such traditions that attribute supernatural origins to ancient ruins and artifacts whose human origins have been lost to local memory. Ruins of ancient dolmens and other Neolithic structures are said to have been built by a race of demigods or titans known as moros, or Moors, not because they were Muslim but because they were not Christian. Roman nails and other iron or stone implements that surface in fields are likewise attributed to activities of dragons or lightning strikes caused by an angry weather god, the ñuberu.

El ñuberu image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

El ñuberu
image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

This last nature-related being, the ñuberu or ‘master of the clouds,’ from the Asturian word for cloud ‘ñube,’ is most clearly related to forces of nature, and it may be that it has survived as such because it rains so darn much in Asturias. The first time we were there we arrived in January 2013 and left in June 2013. I am not exaggerating when I say it rained for about 170 of those 180 days. They tell me it was uncharacteristic, but as I have yet to spend another winter season in Asturias I have no basis for comparison. Therefore it is not surprising that the traditions about the ñuberu have been so faithfully transmitted. The ñuberu is represented as an older man, bearded, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, dressed in animal skins and rags. He keeps to the heights where he can survey his works, or rides around the skies on winds and clouds. He is thought to be the latter-day descendent of the Celtic god of rain and lightning, Taranis, whose lends his name to several toponyms in Asturias and Galicia, such as the towns Tarañes, Táranu, Taraña, and the tautological Tarañosdiós.

I smell a 'cristanuzu' Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1918, in English Fairy Tales by Flora Annie Steel (source: Wikipedia)

I smell a ‘cristanuzu’
Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1918, in English Fairy Tales by Flora Annie Steel (source: Wikipedia)

Occasionally he falls to earth taking on the name Xuan Cabrita literally ‘John Little Goat’ but with the sense of ‘Jack Frost.’ In one tradition from the town of Artidiellu, they say that one day a lightning bolt struck and killed a cow, and a ñuberu fell to earth with the lightning. He was a short, ugly, hairy man. He ran into two shepherd boys who took him in and shared their food with him. In the morning he asked them to make a fire using green wood. As the fire grew and gave off thick smoke, he climbed the smoke up to the sky. Before he left, he said to the shepherds: “If you go to the city of Brita ask for Juan Cabrita.” Years later one of the shepherds, now grown, was traveling on a boat and was shipwrecked. He clung to a piece of wood and eventually washed ashore in a strange land. He wandered for a time, living on the charity of strangers until he eventually came to a town named Brita. Then he remembered what the Nuberu had said years ago and asked to see the house of Xuan Cabrita. He knocked on the door, and Xuan Cabrita’s wife answered him, telling him that her husband was out on a trip and would be back later. She asked him to come in and hid him in a dark room filled with smoke. When her husband the Nuberu came home later that night, she said that he smelled a ‘cristianuzu’ — a Christian (probably meaning ‘human’)— but his wife told him it was a man from Lligüeria whom he had met in Canga Xuangayu. Then Xuan Cabrita said: “Cor! That man is a friend of mine! Don’t kill him!”He sat down with the young man to have dinner with him and they spent the evening talking. When Xuan Cabrita asked him where he was from, Xuan said that he happened to be coming from Lligüeria de drop a hail cloud and there he had heard that the wife of the young man, due to his prolonged absence, thought him was dead and was planning to remarry. The young man was very worried because he could not stop the wedding from happening, being so far away from home, but Xuan Cabrita put his mind at ease: he promised to fly him there on the winds. He gave him a sharp stick and said he should spur him on with it, saying “arre demoniu, arre demoniu” (giddiyup, demon), but that he should not call out to either God or the Saints because then Xuan Cabrita would let him fall to earth. Flying through the air  they quickly came to Lligüeria. It was already morning, and they had arrived just in time to get to the church to stop the wedding. In that moment the young man exclaimed: “Oh God, I can see my town!” In that instant the Nuberu gave such a shudder that the young man fell to earth. He was lucky: he landed and caught on a tree branch next to the church and suffered only some scratches, and managed to stop the wedding in time.

make it to the church on time Iglesia San Esteban (Aramil)  source:

make it to the church on time
Iglesia San Esteban (Aramil)

As in other traditions that allegorize the ups and downs of humans’ relationship with nature, Xuan Cabrita here repays a favor to the man, whose respect for the spirit of the winds pays off down the road. Like his counterparts the xana and the cuélebre who give humans golden treasures, or other creatures who grant technology such as bridges and saws, the Nuberu giveth and the Nuberu taketh away.

He is known by other names throughout Asturias. He is said to live in different cities: Tudela (in Navarra), Brita, Oritu, el Grito or Exitu (Asturian for Egypt). This last case is curious: why would a local nature spirit in Asturias come from Egypt? As it turns out, in the nineteenth century when many of these tales were collected was the golden age of European orientalism. Collections of Eastern tales, fables, and traditions were widely available, and as a result some local traditions began to borrow Eastern settings in order to appeal to current literary tastes. We often think of folk traditions as being somehow hermetically sealed off from printed literary tradition. We exoticize the rural informants as being quaintly pre-industrial and perhaps pre-literate. While it is true that general literacy rates in rural Asturias were quite low even by European standards until relatively recently, there is a high degree of interpenetration between written and oral traditions that goes back centuries, at least to the early age of print in the sixteenth century and possibly before this time, as written traditions were disseminated to audiences in public readings of manuscripts and later printed books, once a common form of popular entertainment.

el trasgu image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

el trasgu
image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

The trasgu or trasno is the Asturian equivalent of the leprechaun, a mischievous domestic creature who causes minor annoyance and disorder but who ultimately is relatively harmless. In Asturian tradition he is described as wearing a red cap, and curiously, as having a hole through his left hand. The trasgu disrupts the rhythms of household and work life by stealing small objects such as keys, moving furniture during the night, and generally making a nuisance of himself. In some places it is told that the trasgu can be domesticated, after which he will perform chores around the house until he is released from servitude. This aspect of the Celtic tradition has survived in J.K. Rowling’s house elves, who are bound to serve the households of wizards until they are presented with an item of clothing to wear. Anyone who remembers Dobby the house elf from the Harry Potter books or movies will be familiar with this variant tradition. The trasgu, like the Gremlin from Anglo tradition, is a metaphor for the normal disorder that invades our lives, a reminder that despite our best efforts, some things will never be completely organized or regularized. They are margin of error incarnate. Appropriately, when young children create mischief their elders scold them calling them pequeñus tragsus. This comparison makes a lot of sense when we take into account the trasgu‘s behavior. He is annoying to the point of enraging, but ultimately benevolent, and even lovable. In one tradition, a local family is so fed up with the shenanigans of their house’s trasgu that they pack up and leave. Once their cart is packed up and ready to pull away, the trasgu pops his head from under the bundles and says: ya que vais tous, de casa mudada, tamién múdome you, cula mióu gorra culurada, or in English since you’re all moving away from this house, I’m moving too, with my little red hat!

In another version of this scenario, the family is all packed and realizes they left a bundle of corn in the house.  They send the youngest son back in to fetch it, who runs into the trasgu at the door, who is coming out carrying the corn, and says: tranquilos, que llévola yo, ‘don’t worry, I’m bringing it,’ then hops onto the cart to follow the family to their next house. The moral of the story: a certain amount of domestic chaos and disorder is inevitable, and like the forces of nature needs to be respected in order that you carry on with your life.

el diañu burllón image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

el diañu burllón
image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

Other manifestations of the trasgu are more malevolent and come to be associated with the devil or his minions. The diañu or diañu burllón is a Christian concept, and grafts onto the domestic trasgu the horns and goat-legs used to represent Devils and Demons in Christian tradition. Some of these versions are able to take the shape of goats and other animals, and their mischievous exploits turn violent and are not limited to the domestic sphere. The Christianization of the trasgu and other related traditions turns them all into minor demons, blurring their pre-Christian characteristics and painting them all with the same demonic brush.

Nonetheless, the trasgu is one of the most beloved mythological figures in modern day Asturias. Restaurants and other business use him in their names and signage. trasgu fartu Around the corner from our apartment in Oviedo there was a sidrería, a restaurant that serves the local natural cider and traditional foods from the region, called El Trasgu Tartu or the Sated Trasgu. trasgu cerrajeros Around the corner from this there was a locksmith named trasgu, in honor of the propensity of those creatures to steal one’s keys. So while the primary oral traditions collected by ethnographers have mostly died out, there is a secondary life to these traditions that is symbolic of regional culture and identity. xana restaurante Likewise the Xana is found in name of businesses and organizations throughout Asturias, such as this restaurant, a brand of local beer, and a beauty shop, vacation apartments, and others.

xana restauranteSo it is clear from these contemporary examples that today’s Asturians still value these mythological traditions in some way, even if they themselves are not carriers of the traditions as repositories of knowledge and of transmitters who tell tales and stories and teach them to their children. The question is, do they —did they— believe in these creatures? This is a difficult question. When we ask if someone believes in God, we have a common reference point. We usually know what it looks like and sounds like if someone believes in God. But what does it mean to believe in a mythological creature such as a cuélebre or a xana. We can go to several sources for answers. The first is history. When these traditions emerged before Christianity, we can assume they were gods of a pagan religion and that people believed they existed in a concrete sense. In fact, according to one theory, in Neolithic times, humans actually hallucinated the voices of their idols or gods directly in their heads, so their experience was quite direct. There was no question as to belief when you saw the idol and heard the voice of the god every day. Let’s assume this was the case some five thousand years ago in Asturias. Then eventually, as human cognition and society advances, the gods stop talking to you directly and recede, in this case into the forests, caves, and rivers, where they appear sporadically, often on solstice days or other points on the agricultural cycle with which they are associated. At this point the legends and myths, which were quite unnecessary in the days when the gods spoke to you directly, begin to develop, in order to maintain a collective consciousness of their power and their value as metaphors for human experience in nature. This is where we can probably speak of belief in ways that are recognizable to us from our own experience as moderns. Then there is a long, probably very long transitional period in two parts. In the first, the local gods are in competition with Roman gods, and begin to take on aspects of Roman representations of their counterparts from Greek and Roman religion. Finally, with the advent of Christianity to the Peninsula, which we must remember proceeded from East to West and from South to North, would have arrived late to Asturias, which was home to some Roman settlements but whose geography made it possible for large rural populations to avoid Romanization and Christianization practically altogether.

We have mentioned the effect of Christianity on the old gods or beings. They were demonized in Christian sources. Parish priests inveighed against the old beliefs in order to safeguard the souls of their congregants. They read a steady stream of anti-pagan treatises that condemned as heretics the practitioners of folk traditions, be they medicinal, pagan rite, or cults of local gods such as the beings we have been discussing. The communities became biconfessional. Some professed Christianity, some stayed with the old  pagan beliefs, but I would say that a substantial majority practiced some combination of both. For example, an informant once told the ethnographer Alberto Álvarez Peña that in her village there were seven churches, and each church has its own Virgin Mary. The seven virgins, according to the woman, were sisters, and spoke to one another, and she went on to describe the private life of these local goddesses in detail. This can only be understood as the survival of a pagan mentality some fifteen hundred years after the Christianization of Spain.

But what about the traditional beings themselves, the xanas and cuélebres of the old beliefs? Did people believe in them in recent times? And what do we mean by believe? This is a complex question that we cannot possibly answer in five minutes. After Christianity had gained a firm foothold in the region, modern scientific beliefs —and they are beliefs, do not be fooled— came to challenge both the old beliefs and Christianity to boot. In this phase the old gods retreated further. First they had retreated from the minds of the people to the woods. Then they had to do battle —quite literally, in some traditions— with Priests and Saints, who almost finished them off. Now they really had the rug pulled out from under them in the modern era. Humans were demonstrating their dominance over nature in ways that were unimaginable before the eighteenth century. Mines probed deeper into the earth, ships were able to move cargo further and faster and in worse conditions than ever, and the airplane took us into the sky where, if indeed he still lived there, we could look eye to eye with the nuberu himself. Now what? Some informants provide clues as to how the traditions adapt themselves to the new conditions of human consciousness. The gods retreat further, into the past, but still retain their authenticity. In recent years an informant is asked about a local cuélebre, and he replies that when his grandfather was a boy, there was a cuélebre in a cave on a local hillside that used to appear once in a while, but he doesn’t come out anymore.  Note that he didn’t say, as informants often do when relaying traditions in which they do not believe in the strict sense of the word, ‘nobody believes in that dragon anymore.’ Rather, he respected the authenticity of the tradition, authorizing it for further transmission. He brought the cuélebre in line with modern, science-believing tradition by not requiring it to be tested current ideas about the relationship between nature and humanity. He puts the burden of proof on past generations, who are no longer present to speak. This a continuation of the trajectory of the old gods, who went from speaking in our heads, to receding into the forest or the sky, to disappearing altogether and existing as a tradition that no longer shapes everyday action or thought but that occupies its place in popular belief alongside Christianity and modern science.

I hope that these brief comments have been thought provoking, and that you have nuanced your understanding of Spanish culture, and European culture in general. My sources for the mythological material where two books by Alberto Álvarez Peña published in Spanish, the one is titled Mitología asturiana and the other Mitos y leyendas asturianas. The theory of Neolithic humans hallucinating the voices of their gods is from The Origin of Human Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes.

The survey course: back to the drawing board (again)


Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

I’ve written twice before about approaches to the survey course in medieval Iberian literature (or whatever you prefer to call it). The first time (Sep 2011), I took an ‘issues-based’ approach by which I applied a ‘big idea’ to whatever text I was teaching. I used mainly handouts of texts I had entered and glossed for my undergrad students, sometimes following the lead of popular anthologies and providing study questions, key concepts, a very minor apparatus. I was responding to student feedback (based on their written comments and their affect and my perceived level of their engagement during class) that suggested students will more readily engage a culturally unfamiliar text when it is paired with a cultural problem with which they are familiar. It’s a bit of conditioning: you pair a negative stimulus with an associated positive one, in order to transfer the positive attachment to the less attractive object. Your students might call it ‘relatability.’

This approach was a success in terms of leveraging interest in broader cultural problems (female beauty standard, sexual politics, ethical economies such as carbon credits, and so on). However, two problems persisted: I found it difficult to achieve a thematic or narrative cohesion for the course, something that the students pointed out in their written comments. Also, the teaching materials, a course reader made up of my own short pedagogical editions and photocopies of excerpts from modern editions, was hard to work with. It lacked consistent pagination, was not illustrated, and had no visual or thematic identity as a text.



In frustration, I reverted to the classic anthology (which I wrote about here in July 2013), a format with which I was familiar but with which I had serious reservations. I decided, for convenience’s sake, to go with the textbook. There were advantages: I used the reading comprehension questions for the daily online quizzes, and the thematic questions for exam questions. There was perfect clarity as to what was being assessed. I fielded very few procedural questions from students.

After teaching this format for a year, I was pleased with the clear-cut structure of the assessments, but still kept running up against the narrative problem. For students (and myself to a lesser degree), the History of Spanish Literature was not a meaningful rubric for organizing our readings. They are attracted to political and social narratives. More than anything else, they crave background information about the places and times in question. They find the original medieval Castilian difficult, disorienting, disheartening, but not distasteful.

Drawn to narrative Source: Telegraph UK

Drawn to narrative
Source: Telegraph UK

In an attempt to address these concerns and to allow myself to return to teaching a more culturally inclusive vision of my understanding of the literary culture in the Peninsula during the first half of the second millennium, I decided to teach fewer works in their entirety, to give the students all texts in both Spanish and English (regardless of their original language of composition), and to assign trade books in English paired with each primary reading to give them abundant background information along with the narrative they seem to be craving. I was inspired by the example of my colleague Prof. S.J. Pearce (NYU), who has taught a similar course in English (focused on al-Andalus), and by a discussion I had with the Historian Prof. Brian Catlos (U Colorado) about organizing large survey courses. The result is the following course, organized thematically around questions of coexistence, conflict, and conquest. You can read a draft of the full syllabus here.

  1. María Rosa Menocal, Ornament of the World
  2. Cities of Light (Film)
  3. Richard Fletcher, Moorish Spain
  4. Clarke, The Muslim Conquest of Iberia: Medieval Arabic Narratives
  5. Poems of al-Mu’tamid (trans. Rubiera Mata)
  6. Jane Gerber, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience
  7. Catlos, Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors: Christians, Muslims and Jews in the Age of Crusade (chapters on Samuel Hanagid and Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar)
  8. Poems of Samuel Hanagid Nagrela (trans. Peter Cole; trans. Ángel Sáenz-Badillos)
  9. The Poem of the Cid (ed. Ian Michael, trans. Rita Hamilton and Janet Perry)
  10. Roger Wright, Spanish Ballads (especially romances fronterizos)
  11. Matthew Carr, Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain
  12. Francisco Núñez Muley, Memorial (ed. Lingkua 2007; trans. Barletta;)
  13. Don Quijote (ed. Rico; trans. Grossman; chapters 1-3, and Ricote episdoe)

The idea with this approach is that the students come to the first day of class having read Menocal’s Ornament of the World and having viewed Cities of Light, and so have some historical and cultural background before getting down to the business of reading medieval texts. Each primary text is (ie paired with a historical study in English that gives them considerably more historical, political, and cultural background than the brief introductory paragraphs in a classic anthology, and the availability of English translations take the pressure off them to digest 13th- or 14th- century Castilian after just having come from third-year reading and composition courses.

It's a new world

It’s a new world

In the fall, when I teach the survey course in a larger format (60-70 students, 2 lectures and one discussion section), it will include the New World. Our department has shifted to a survey system that covers the Hispanic-Latino world during a given time period, as opposed to teaching separate sequences in Peninsular and Latin American literature. I will probably add the Diario of Columbus and Naufragios by Cabeza de Vaca, either in a bilingual edition (Columbus) or separate Spanish and English editions (Cabeza de Vaca).

And by the way, I am still looking for an undergrad-friendly secondary source in English to provide historical and cultural background for the romances fronterizos. Any suggestions?




Medieval Iberian literary studies in the US: challenges past and present

Historically, the study of the literature of medieval Iberia has been characterized by disciplinary territoriality and impaired by ideological positions tied to national literature approaches that have, in my opinion, impoverished the field. As is the case with other territories where one dialect of a related group became an official national language, the field has been Castilian-centric. In the 20th-century US, the field was essentially founded dominated first by European-trained Romance philologists, many fleeing Hitler or Franco. Eventually, as Hispanic studies became more and more a reflection of increasing US interest in Latin America, medieval Spanish studies became less a sector of Romance Philology or of Western European philology in general and more the back story to the current drama of the Latin American Boom novel, the literature of the Mexican Revolution, and the poetry of Pablo Neruda. This led to a shift in student perception of medieval literature and language from that of a ‘classical tradition’ that was indispensable to understanding Spanish national literature, to a quaint curiosity with little obvious relevance to modern Latin American literature and culture, with the possible exception of the literature of the Colonial period. For many US students of Hispanic literature the medieval survey course is little more than a bitter bill one must swallow. In recent years, as US Latino studies has gathered momentum, the study of medieval literature has been further marginalized as the curriculum has expanded and student interest further shifted forward in time, across the Atlantic, and increasingly, on the US-Mexico border.

the light of theory

the light of theory

The rise of Latin American studies has, paradoxically, been a benefit to medievalists in that the massive proliferation of undergraduate and Masters degree programs in Spanish at US universities has provided medievalists with a steady flow of reluctant students who are required to study at least one course of premodern literature to graduate. An additional benefit has been that the dominance of Latin American studies has forced medievalists to come out of their caves blinking into the sunlight. Now surrounded by colleagues whose ideological and methodological approaches differed radically from those of the medievalists who trained them, medieval Hispanists began to come to grips with the politicization of literary studies, the corpus of critical theory that had become the currency of the realm, and the pressing need to demonstrate the relevance of their studies to a student body who has neither consciousness of nor faith in the idea of literary history.

Yes Virginia, there is a BA in Spanish

Yes Virginia, there is a BA in Spanish
Source: Wikipedia

Many Spanish majors who are required to take my courses have little vocation for literary study but rather are pursuing their degree in Spanish in order to certify their proficiency in the language and in what they like to call the ‘culture’ of the Hispanic-Latino world. About 50% of them include the literature of this world as part of said culture. This has forced us as Hispanists to rethink what it is that we have on offer, a rethinking that can be productive for one’s own research if you do not spend too much time lamenting the Old Days, when we imagine Spanish majors were simply English majors who wanted to become little Delmira Augustinis and Lorcas instead of little Virginia Woolfs and Joyces.

One of the exiles who came to the US during the Franco period had a massive impact on the field of medieval letters. Américo Castro, who taught at University of Houston and at Princeton University during the second half of the twentieth century, cracked the field wide open. Working within the national literatures framework, his thesis was that Spain’s national character was not a product of  a Roman-Visigothic-Haspburgian cultural continuity, but rather was the hybrid product of the various religious and ethnic traditions who had always populated the Iberian Peninsula, including the Andalusi Muslim and Sephardic Jewish traditions. While he did not go as far as displacing Castile from the center of Spanish studies, he opened the field to Hispano-Arabic and Hispano-Hebrew studies. One effect of this intervention was to privilege the literary voices of non-Christian residents of Christian Iberia.

A boost for Portuguese

A boost for Portuguese
Source: Wikipedia

It must be noted, that however much the Hebrew and Arabic literary production of medieval Iberia has been marginalized within Hispanic studies, Portuguese and Catalan (to say nothing of Latin) have been equally if not more overshadowed by Castilian. The rise of Hispanic and Latino studies in the US has been a bilingual enterprise carried out nearly exclusively in Spanish and English. This leaves not just Hebrew and Arabic out in the cold, but all the other languages of literary production in medieval Iberia as well: Latin, Catalan, Aragonese, Galician-Portuguese, etc. Portuguese has had a considerable boost both by the Portuguese emigree community in the US, and more recently by increasing interest in the Brazilian economy and vernacular art forms, but Catalan remains the red-headed stepchild of medieval Hispanic studies. A decent level of support is available from the Generalitat de Catalunya, but interest even among graduate students of medieval Hispanic literatures is relatively low. The post-Franco Catalan revival has attracted a good deal of scholarly attention among modernists, but Catalan lags far behind Castilian in terms of graduate student interest. Finally Latin, the administrative, liturgical, and creative language of Christian Iberian kingdoms prior to the rise of the literary vernaculars, produced a massive literary corpus that Hispanists have studied but are hard pressed to teach due to a lack of critical translations and the fact that Iberian Latin works are not typically included on PhD reading lists in Hispanic Studies.

 Castro vs Sánchez Albornoz etc

Samuel G. Armistead 1927-2013
Source: eSefarad

For those of us working in the US, it was the legacy of Américo Castro that had the greatest impact on this debate. Castro threw down the multicultural gauntlet. It was a real challenge to the field, a call to arms. His approach was most popular in the US, where he taught, and far less so in Spain, where the patirarchal and endogamous pattern of graduate education and hiring practices still held sway. Castro’s students and followers in the US, notably Francisco Márquez Villanueva, Sam Armistead, and James Monroe, during the last quarter of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st, all continued to explore the idea that Spain’s literary and vernacular cultures were not simply a reaction to the history of Islam and Judaism in the Peninsula, but were heirs, hybrids, a mulicultural product of this history. Consequently any assessment of medieval Iberian culture that omitted the Peninsula’s Semitic legacy was incomplete at best and patently racist at worst.

Castro’s students, and his students’ students, took up the challenge with great zeal. His multicultural thesis resonated with the brewing US multiculturalism that exploded in the wake of the Vietnam War. James Monroe (Emeritus at UC Berkeley), who took his PhD in Romance Languages at Harvard, went on to almost single-handedly champion Andalusi literary studies outside of Spain, always with the idea that, as he put it, and with only slight exaggeration, “Spanish is a dialect of Arabic.” The late Francisco Márquez-Villanueva (Emeritus at Harvard) wrote extensively on the semitic cultures of the Iberian peninsula and their deep footprint in what would become Castilian and then Spanish literary and intellectual culture. The late Samuel Armistead (Emeritus at UC Davis) dedicated a lifetime to the study of the culture of medieval Iberia and its transformations in the culture of the Sephardic Jews. His student, the late María Rosa Menocal (Yale) famously disrupted the field first with her book The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History in which she championed the so-called thèse arabe of the genesis of troubadour poetry, and also challenged Hispanist approaches to the Andalusi legacy of Peninsular literary culture. More recently Menocal published a popular trade book, titled The Ornament of the World, a multicultural history of medieval Iberia that delighted general readers and sympathetic specialists, and infuriated more orthodox historians who felt that her intervention was an incursion on their territory and a heresy of speculative, even revisionist history in the spirit of her academic grandfather, Américo Castro. The academic grandchildren of Castro, such as Harvard’s Luis Girón-Negrón, Minnesota’s Michelle Hamilton, and Michigan’s Ryan Szpiech, are continuing and nuancing the work begun by Castro and his students, and continue to interrogate linguistic and religious categories of scholarly inquiry. inexistente

The debate begun by Américo Castro and his archnemesis Claudio Sánchez Albornoz continues to this day. In Spain, where the question of the national Semitic legacy is neatly mapped to the political faults of the Spanish Civil War, and therefore painfully relevant, this academic debate spills over into the areas of popular history and public policy. While Spanish Arabists and Hebraists continue to do excellent work in relative obscurity, popular histories espousing Castrista or Sanchezalbornocista views line the shelves of train-station bookstores with provocative titles like al-Andalus versus Spain by Serafín Fanjul, Spain before Islam, from Muhammad to Bin Laden, by César Vidal Manzanares, and my personal favorite, Non-existent al-Andalus by Rosa María Rodríguez Magda.



Let them read Hanagid

The question of medieval Spain in Hebrew studies is plagued by a secondary nationalism by which a Judeo-centric focus has tended to minimize the Arabic and Romance contexts of Hebrew literary production in al-Andalus and Christian Iberia. As with the case of the Castilian poets of the middle ages, the canonical Hebrew poets of al-Andalus have become the classics of Hebrew or Jewish literature, and as such are vehicles for all sorts of ideological programs that condition the study of and estimation of their work. Andalusi and Andalusi Hebrew literature is not typically considered as Spanish Literature, and Spanish school children do not learn the verses of Ibn Zaydun and Samuel Hanagid Naghrela in translation alongside those of Gonzalo de Berceo and Juan Ruiz. Spanish universities do in fact teach Hebrew and Arabic and produce a steady stream of academic specialists in Hebrew and Arabic literature of the Peninsula, but only recently do we see studies incorporating primary poetic texts in both Hebrew and Arabic.  Within Hebrew/Arabic, especially with regard to the study of Hebrew Andalusi material, we have a simliar nationalist agenda that has been complicated by the emergence of the State of Israel with Hebrew as one of its official languages and Arabic as an official language with a much lower status. Some of the patterns of institutional bias in Hebrew and Arabic studies that obtain in Spain are also true in the US and UK. In the US, for example, Judaic studies is supported by Jewish funders whose ideology tends toward the conservative, the Zionist, and consequently toward the marginalization of Arabic as a Jewish language of expression.

Ángel Sáenz-Badillos

Ángel Sáenz-Badillos 1940-2013

In the United States, the UK, Spain, and Israel there are a large handful of specialists working on medieval Sephardic literature. Most of them, with the exception of those trained in Spain, have only a passing familiarity with the Romance languages and literatures of the Peninsula, and even those working in Spain, with the exception of those trained by the recently deceased Ángel Sáenz-Badillos (Complutense), are interested in the broader vernacular and classical contexts of the Hebrew literature of the Peninsula. To wit, the recent book by Jonathan Decter of Brandeis University on Hebrew literature in transition between al-Andalus and Christian Europe is a solid effort to situate Hebrew literature in the context of Romance literatures, but ultimately the author, whose training in Arabic and Hebrew is formidable, is less familiar with the Romance traditions of the Peninsula. As Karla Mallette and Sharon Kinoshita both point out in recent articles,  the linguistic challenge of the medieval European or Mediterranean comparatist is significant, and it is rare to encounter a scholar with sufficient preparation in both Semitic and Romance languages to do justice to the material. This underscores the need for collaborative work, which unfortunately (at least in the US academy) does not pass muster for purposes of tenure and promotion. This is another way in which the professional norms of the academy can frustrate pan-European or pan-Mediterranean scholarship.

Among Israeli scholars one can observe a dynamic similar to that which obtains in Spain: disciplinary culture discourages comparative work, from the moment one begins their doctoral work forward.


The way forward

The question remains as to how to reverse or diffuse this trend. Individuals such as those mentioned above can endeavor on their own accounts to learn the necessary languages and seek out the necessary training, but once employed by departments of national or modern languages, the institutional environment encourages more traditional work in terms of linguistic and methodological approach. My question, then, in terms of methodology, is this: if we are seeking new  paradigms to offset the national paradigm, how do we avoid falling into parallel orthodoxies or formations that are strictly reactive to national literatures?

 Works cited

  • Kinoshita, Sharon. “Medieval Mediterranean Literature.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 124.2 (2009): 600-08.
  • Mallette, Karla. “Boustrophedon: Towards a Literary Theory of the Mediterranean.” A Sea of Languages: Rethinking the Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History. Ed. Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Karla Mallette. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013. 254–266. Print.

This post is based on a presentation I gave to the Center for Medieval Literature’s Interfaces group at their recent meeting, “Rethinking Medieval European Literary History,” held at Fondation des Treilles, France. Many thanks to Profs. Lars Boje Mortensen (Southern Denmark), Elizabeth Tyler (York), and Christian Høgel (Southern Denmark) for their invitation.

Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy converts for girl: Crónica de Flores y Blancaflor

flores-blancaflor1In the last post about the Aljamiado manuscript of Paris and Viana (Aragon, ca. 1560) we saw an example of a cross-cultural romance of two Christians read by a Muslim audience, in which the protagonist ‘passes’ for Arab in his travels in the Eastern Mediterranean. In this case, it is the protagonists themselves who cross cultures. Flores is the son of the Muslim king of Almería (al-Andalus) and Blancaflor is the daughter of a captive French Christian Countess. The two are raised together in the court of Almería:

en vno los criaran, e mamauan vna leche, e en vno comien e beuien, e en vn lecho se echavan. E porque fazien vna vida queriense bien ademas (57) (‘they were raised together, and nursed the same milk, and ate and drank together, and slept in the same bed. And because they led one life they also loved one another very much’).

Naturally they fall in love, which is a problem because Flores is Muslim and Blancaflor is Christian. In order to separate them, King Fines sends his son Flores to Seville, sells Blancaflor into slavery, and fakes her death. He cannot countenance a Christian daughter-in-law, and contrives to make Flores

amar a otra que le pertenezca para casamiento e que sea pagana de nuestra ley. Ca desaguisada cosa me semeja que nuestro fijo sea casado con fija de cristiano. (58) (‘love another women who is fitting for him to marry, and who be a pagan of our law. For is seems to me untoward that our son be married to the daughter of a Christian.’)

This is where the all action happens

This is where the all action happens
Source: Wikipedia

Eventually he tells Flores the truth, and Flores then embarks on a pan-Mediterranean adventure to save his beloved. There is a happy ending in which the lovers are reunited, Flores converts to Christianity, and brings the kingdom of Almería into Christendom: Vivieron felices y comieron perdices (‘They lived happily and ate quail’).

This is the version of the French Floire et Blancheflor (Crónica de Flores y Blancaflor, ca. 1300 to its modern editors) we find woven into the Castilian chronicle known as Estoria de España. The Estoria was the section of the massive historical project begun by Alfonso X of Castile-León (r. 1252-1284), the Primera crónica general, meant to record all of human history from creation to the current regime. In the twelfth-century French version, the story of Floire and Blancheflor was about emphasizing the Carolingian legacy of the current regime in a time when France was once again entangled with Islam in the Crusades (Baranda).The French Floire and Blancheflor validated the crusades as the continuation of Charlemagne’s struggle with Islam in Spain. However, when  in the following century the romance is adapted by a Castilian historiographer for purposes of validating domestic crusade, the adventures of the star-crossed young lovers finding each other against all odds becomes the story of Castilian political power and Christian proselytizing in al-Andalus.

King Fruela I of Asturias - Flores asks him to intercede on his behalf in Rome to estblish a Bishopric at Córdoba, and later teams up with him to reduce Toledo and Zaragoza to tributary states. Source: Wikipedia

King Fruela I of Asturias – Flores asks him to intercede on his behalf in Rome to estblish a Bishopric at Córdoba, and later teams up with him to reduce Toledo and Zaragoza to tributary states.
Source: Wikipedia

The romance of Flores and Blancaflor is tightly interwoven, in alternating chapters, with the history of the kings of Asturias in Northern Spain during the 8th-10th centuries and their struggles with the Muslim kings of al-Andalus to their south. The story of this Asturian ‘resistance’ to the Muslim domination of the Iberian Peninsula was already in the thirteenth century used to justify further conquests in al-Andalus and North Africa, part of an ideology and trajectory of conquest that would come to bring all of al-Andalus and eventually a great part of the known world under the flags of Castile-León and Aragon. Thus this love story between Christian and Muslim is textually fused with the foundational narrative of Christian Spain.

As in the case of the Spanish adaptation of the French romance Paris et Vienne, conquest, conversion, and crusade mean something different in Castile than they do in France. For French audiences, tales of Saracen queens who convert to Christianity were free to fantasize what for France by the eleventh century was the stuff of distant legend in the context of a far-away imperialist project (Kinoshita). For Spain, however, conversion and domestic crusade was the story of daily life. The metaphors of mixed marriage and conversion for the drama of Andalusi and Castilian history were part of both local history, and to a significant extent, daily reality. Just as French royals often intermarried with the royal houses of neighboring kingdoms, Christian Iberian royals had long intermarried with the sons and daughters of Andalusi rulers. In the thirteenth century, daily coexistence with Muslims in Christian kingdoms as well as political conflict with the Kingdom of Granada was not something that took place, as in the French version, “long long ago” and “far far away.”

Charlemagne instructing Louis the Pious. Grandes Chroniques de France, France, Paris (BnF Français 73, fol. 128v) Source: Wikipedia

Charlemagne instructing Louis the Pious. Grandes Chroniques de France, France, Paris (BnF Français 73, fol. 128v)
Source: Wikipedia

When the French fantasy of the Muslim other is retrofitted for Iberian audiences, the result is a curious internal-Orientalist novelized encounter between Christianity and Islam in which the role of the Muslim other is transformed from crusade metaphor to national historical allegory. At the same time, Iberian monarchs are using the French sword against their counterparts across the pyrennes. That is, while the French kings used the romance to legitimize their own dynastic claims, Sancho IV appropriates the narrative for his own political ends against the French themselves, stabbing them, as it were, with their own Charlemagne.

In Iberia, however, the question of Christian and Muslim is complicated and the literary representation of the foster siblings/lovers is an allegory for a local history with real political and social implications. Conversion to Christianity is not only a historical allegory of conquest, but a daily reality as well, one given ample attention by Dominican friars and other religious who devoted their lives to bring Iberian Muslims and Jews into the flock (Hames; Tartakoff).

In Flores y Blancaflor (and, interestingly, not in the older French version), Flores is predisposed to convert to Christianity because he was nursed by a Christian woman, the French countess who is also the mother of Blancaflor. The Muslim Flores is nursed by the countess, who has “good milk.” Ostensibly this predisposes him to Christianity, ca la naturaleza de la leche de la Cristiana lo mouio a ello (“for the nature of the Christian milk moved him to that”) (53)

His eventual decision to convert is then natural, and explained in terms of the science of the day. This idea of a biological/chemical basis for religious identity predates the fifteenth-century concept of limpieza de sangre, by which religious identity (Jewish or Muslim) was understood to adhere in the blood, despite the individual’s actual religious beliefs (Edwards; Kaplan). In the fifteenth century this was a way to deny power and privilege to new converts from Judaism and Islam. In the late fourteenth, the biological determination of Flores’ authentic religious identity is a metaphor for the conquest of al-Andalus and the ideology of domestic crusade.

The idea that a renegade Muslim born of mixed Christian and Muslim parents finds frequent expression in medieval Spanish literature. In the legend of the Siete Infantes de Lara, the Muslim-turned-Christian hero Mudarra is son of Gonzalo Gustios and a Muslim courtier woman, in some (very anachronistic) versions the sister of the Hajib Almanzor (de facto Caliph of al-Andalus) himself. The narrator attributes both his outstanding moral character and physical beauty to his Christian heritage, which eventually ‘wins’ out over his Muslim heritage and makes him a Christian hero. Likewise, the Muslim Abenámar (i.e., Ibn `Ammar) protagonist of the eponymous ballad, was born of a Christian mother who told him never to lie. Like the Andalusi Flores, who took in moral excellence along with the ‘Christian milk’ of the French countess, these protagonists embody the dream of conquest and conversion that was the dominant ideology of the times. Their strength of character and authority stem not from their language or culture, but from their Christian biological heritage.

In the case of the Crónica de Flores y Blancaflor, this Christian heritage becomes a metaphor for the ideology of Christian conquest and crusade, perhaps of ‘reconquista’ avant la lettre. The tale of the two lovers serves a dual purpose: on the one hand, their union brings together the political legacies of Charlemagne and the Umayyad Caliphate in the court of Sancho IV, under whose reign the text was completed. On top of this bit of historigraphical legitimation, very much in keeping with the times, we have the historical allegorization of the conversion of al-Andalus in the person of Flores. The result is a narrative of justification that is simultaneously mimetic, allegorical, and entertaining. The strategy of alternating between the exploits of the Asturian kings and the amores of the two lovers is not just an example of subtle literary politics, it is also a good read to boot. But don’t take my word for it; thanks to the recent edition by David Arbesú, you all can judge for yourselves.

This post is a preliminary version of a paper I gave at the 2014 meeting of the Medieval Academy of America and the Medieval Association of the Pacific, at a panel on “Sites of Encounter: Iberia (2)” Thanks to the panel organizer and moderator Michelle Armstrong-Partida (U Texas, El Paso).


  • Arbesú-Fernández, David, ed. Crónica de Flores y Blancaflor. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studie), 2011. Print.
  • Arbesú-Fernández, David. “Introduction.” Crónica de Flores y Blancaflor. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2011. 1–47. Print.
  • Baranda, Nieves. “Los problemas de la historia medieval de Flores y Blancaflor.” Dicenda 10 (1992): 21–39. Print.
  • Edwards, John. “The Beginnings of a Scientific Theory of Race? Spain, 1450-1600.” From Iberia to Diaspora: Studies in Sephardic History and Culture. Leiden: Brill, 1999. 179–196. Print.
  • Hames, Harvey J. The Art of Conversion : Christianity and Kabbalah in the Thirteenth Century. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2000. The Medieval Mediterranean, v. 26.
  • Kaplan, Gregory B. “The Inception of limpieza de sangre (Purity of Blood) and its impact in Medieval and Golden Age Spain.” Marginal Voices: Studies in Converso Literature of Medieval and Golden Age Spain. Ed. Gregory B. Kaplan and Amy Aronson-Friedman. Leiden: Brill, 2012. 19–42. Print.
  • Kinoshita, Sharon. Medieval Boundaries: Rethinking Difference in Old French Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Print.
  • Tartakoff, Paola. Between Christian and Jew: Conversion and Inquisition in the Crown of Aragon, 1250-1391. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. Print.