Ramon Llull’s Missionary Crusade in Blaquerna ca. 1280

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

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

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

A missionary strategy for Iberian crusade

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

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

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

 The Iberian crusader imaginary

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

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

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

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

The Missionary Knight Crusader

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

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


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

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

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

The Knight of Mary against the Saracens

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Souls’ Day in Skogskyrkogården, Sweden Source: Wikimedia

All Souls’ Day in Skogskyrkogården, Sweden
Source: Wikimedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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): http://hdl.handle.net/1794/19484]

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.”

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.

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.

Crusader fiction for Muslim readers: The aljamiado manuscript of Historia de los amores de París y Viana (Aragon, ca. 1560)

The Knight of the Swan was the legendary ancestor of French crusader Godrey de Bouillon. Source: Wikipedia

The Knight of the Swan was the legendary ancestor of French crusader Godfrey de Bouillon. Source: Wikipedia

Chivalric novels with crusading themes were extremely popular in Western Europe in the late middle ages. French authors in the twelfth century produced literary prose versions of the Arthurian cycle and other textual traditions. Their representations of historic events were heavily novelized, fleshed out with lots of concrete details representing the procedures and protocols of daily life at court.  While the epic traditions of Western Europe such as The Chanson de Roland, Cantar de Mio Cid, and Beowulf celebrated excellence in arms, in the Romance authors subordinated martial prowess to abstract ideals such as love or faith. This formula, of the hero and heroine separated and the adventures that eventually bring them together, was a winning formula that, far from being a uniquely French or English innovation, emerged as a Mediterranean literary practice during the twelfth century, one with roots in Byzantine and Roman antiquity.

It's a Mediterranean Thing. Source: Wikipedia

It’s a Mediterranean Thing. Source: Wikipedia

However, the romance in France and Iberia is only one piece of the picture. Though literary historians (especially of Western European languages) promote a narrative by which the Arthurian legends were first developed into prose romances by French writers in the twelfth centuries and imitated by other traditions in subsequent centuries, 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 (Agapitos and Mortensen; Kinoshita). Thus the tradition of chivalric romances of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that became so popular in the early age of print in Iberia and beyond, such as Tirant lo Blanch and Amadís de Gaula, among others,  were exemples 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.

1511 Castilian translation of Tirant lo Blanch

1511 Castilian translation of Tirant lo Blanc

Such romances were very popular in Aragon and Castile during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Arthurian romances were translated into Iberian languages since the fourteenth century. The following century saw the appearance of original romances penned by authors from the Iberian Peninsula such as Tirant lo Blanc, Curiel e Güelfa, and Amadís de Gaula. The heroes of these books had wide-ranging adventures throughout the Mediterranean, and often ended up as Emperor of Constantinople, both in imitation of the events surrounding the Fourth Crusade and as a bit of wish-fulfilment following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

We should remember, however, that Hispano-Arabic authors wrote romances as well. We have Ziyad ibn Amir al-Qinani, written in the twelfth century, and Qissat Bayad wa-Riyad from the end of the thirteenth. Arabic Romances written in the East, such as the Sirat Anatar and Sirat al-Zahir Baybars, found audiences in Granada, Seville, and Valencia. These Arabic and Romance-language chivalric romances intertwined both historically and literarily. Both traditions of chivalric romance share common settings, historical bases, and to a certain extent, aesthetic conventions, especially in their descriptions of courtly life.

Antar and Abla, from a 19th c. Egyptian tattooing pattern

Antar and Abla, from a 19th c. Egyptian tattooing pattern. Source: Wikipedia

These romances were often the stage for geopolitical drama. Authors projected the political and spiritual concerns of the day onto the pages of boy meets girl, boy loses girl stories. These heroes and heroines played out their dramas against the backdrop of the crusades, the territorial struggles between Islam and Christianity, the grand proselytic dreams of the preaching orders and the kings who supported them, the struggles between Rome and the kingdoms of Latin Christendom, between Byzantium and the West. Romances novelized these concerns, embodying them in the figures of eponymous heroes and heroines who battled, were shipwrecked, and joyfully reunited on the thrones of great empires real or imagined

In Spain this Mediterranean drama played out at home. Crusade was not something that took place “in a galaxy far, far away.” Since before the first crusade, Christian Iberian monarchs had received Papal Bulls of Holy War encouraging their efforts to eliminate Islamic political power on the Peninsula. Just as French and Catalan romances reflected the Crusades, Iberian romances reflected the Aragonese expansion into the Eastern Mediterranean, and the problem of al-Andalus. Thus the thirteenth-century Castilian Flores and Blancaflor imagines the conversion of the Muslim kingdom of Almería, and the Catalan Tirant lo Blanch imagines a successful Fifth Crusade in which the hero becomes Emperor of Constantinople.

16th c. Aljamiado mauscript of text by the Mancebo de Arévalo

16th c. Aljamiado mauscript of text by the Mancebo de Arévalo. Source: Wikipedia

But what does a crusading novel mean for a Muslim readership in Christian Spain? The conquest of Granada in 1492 by the Catholic Monarchs Isabel and Ferdinand may have put an end to Islamic political power on the Peninsula, but it was far from the the last cry of Islamic culture and religion. Although all Spanish Muslims were forcibly baptized at the beginning of the fifteenth century, Islam continued to flourish, unofficially and in varying degrees of secrecy, until the early seventeenth century, when the so-called Moriscos, the descendents of those converted Muslims, were expelled from Spain. During the sixteenth century, Moriscos produced their own clandestine literature that circulated in manuscript alongside the emergent print culture of the mainstream.  This aljamiado literature was Castilian (or Aragonese) written in Arabic letters. The term aljamiado is derived from the Arabic `ajamiyya, meaning non-Arabic language (Galmés de Fuentes, “Lengua y estilo”).

Most aljamiado texts were religious, but a few are modeled after the popular poetry and fiction of the times. Historia de los amores de Paris y Viana was a popular adaptation of the fourteenth-century French chivalric romance Paris et Vienne. It is a typical romance that takes place on a mediterranean stage and is thought by some to be a historical allegory for the French crown’s annexation of the Dauphiny of Albon (Auvergne) (Baranda). The adventures take the protagonists from France to Constantinople to Damascus to Cairo.

Paris y Viana (Burgos, 1524)

Paris y Viana (Burgos, 1524) Source: Wikipedia

The aljamiado manuscript (ca. 1550) of the popular chivalric romance Historia de los amores de París y Viana (The Story of the Romance of Paris and Viana) demonstrates that Morisco readers were aficionados of popular mainstream fiction (Galmés de Fuentes, París y Viana). However, cultural, religious, and political condition makes them a problematic audience for a text with hegemonic Christian values. The mere existence of the aljamiado Paris y Viana poses a series of difficult interpretative questions: How does an audience who is persecuted for their Islamic religion read the exploits of Christian heroes who risk everything to aid the Crusaders in their struggle against Islam? How do readers who are prohibited by law to read or speak Arabic read a Christian hero who learns Arabic so he can travel undetected through the Arab world? The work’s hero, Paris, is a crusader who in one episode goes undercover in the Muslim East to rescue the Dauphin and gather intelligence for the French crusaders. What did Morisco readers make of a Christian hero who goes undercover in the Muslim East, growing out his beard and learning to ‘speak Morisco’ on a recon mission for the Fourth Crusade?


Morisco dress, ca 1600. Source: Mancomunidad Valle de Lecrín

On the one hand, Paris y Viana was a very popular novel, and people like popular novels, even when the ideologies and perspectives within them do not directly reflect the interests of the reader (Hadjivassiliou). People are complicated, and our practices do not always flow directly from our professed ideologies or beliefs. On the other hand, there is no denying the irony of Morisco readers of Paris y Viana risking imprisonment or worse (by possessing an Arabic manuscript) in order to read the exploits of a hero whose goal is ostensibly to eradicate Islam from the Levant, and who disguises himself in traditional dress that directly evokes the Morisco dress outlawed in Granada in the mid-sixteenth century, as the Memorial of Francisco Núñez Muley reminds us (Núñez Muley). Yet it may have been precisely the act of disguising one’s self, of passing as Morisco, that attracted Moriscos to Paris y Viana. They were required in many cases to pass as Christians, to learn Castilian and forget Arabic, to assume a new identity in order to pass undetected by the authorities (Jaramillo). They were forced, like the Jews who had converted to Catholicism to remain in Spain after the 1492 edict of expulsion, to pass in order to survive. The difference was that the Moriscos, unlike Paris, who donned his ‘Moorish’ disguise as part of a great pan-Mediterranean adventure, had to do so in their own country, in their own towns, among their own families.

Promotional newspaper review for Black Skin White Masks. Source: Ross Wolfe, The Charnel-House.

Promotional newspaper review for Black Skin White Masks. Source: Ross Wolfe, The Charnel-House.

Thinkers such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, and Homi Bhabha grapple with how subaltern discourse imitates and reacts to the cultures and values of the majorities among which they live. Du Bois famously coined the term ‘double consciousness’ in his book The Souls of Black Folk. Writing of African Americans, he described (with some slight alteration indicated in brackets) a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,— [ a Spaniard], a [Morisco]; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (Du Bois 3). Such theories, carefully retrofitted to respect the historical difference between twentieth-century US and sixteenth century Spain, may help to shed light on this example of minoritarian literary culture.

Works Cited

  • Agapitos, Panagiotis A, and Lars Boje Mortensen. Medieval Narratives between History and Fiction: From the Centre to the Periphery of Europe, C. 1100-1400. Copenhagen; Lancaster: Museum Tusculanum Press ; Gazelle [distributor], 2012. Print.
  • Baranda, Nieves. “Los problemas de la historia medieval de Flores y Blancaflor.” Dicenda 10 (1992): 21–39. Print.
  • Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bantam Books, 1989. Print.
  • Galmés de Fuentes, Alvaro, ed. Historia de los amores de París y Viana. Madrid: Gredos, 1970. Print.
  • —. “Lengua y estilo en la literatura aljamiado-morisca.” Nueva Revista de Filología Hispánica 30 (1981): 420–440. Print.
  • Hadjivassiliou, Sheela K. U Oregon Span 507 Spain and Islam (Winter 2014). Class discussion. 12 Mar 2014.
  • Jaramillo, Jon. U Oregon Span 507 Spain and Islam (Winter 2014). Class discussion. 12 Mar 2014.
  • Kinoshita, Sharon. “Medieval Mediterranean Literature.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 124.2 (2009): n. pag. Print.
  • Núñez Muley, Francisco. A Memorandum for the President of the Royal Audiencia and Chancery Court of the City and Kingdom of Granada. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

A preliminary version of this post was written as a position paper for the “Assimilation and Exchange” Roudtable at the Winter 2014 Symposium of the UC Mediterranean Seminar Multi-Campus Research Project, San Francisco State University, 7 March 2014. Thanks to the organizers, Profs. Fred Astren (SFSU), Sharon Kinoshita (UCSC) and Brian Catlos (Colorado and UCSC). Thanks also to my graduate students in Spanish 507: Spain and Islam (Winter 2014) some of whose insights I include here.

Translation of Remains and of Texts: Libro del caballero Zifar and the performance of Arabic

In my last post about the Libro del caballero Zifar (‘The Book of the Knight Zifar’), I discussed the how the work’s prologue, which tells the tale of how in the Jubilee Year 1300, the Archdeacon of Toledo Ferrant Martínez went to Rome on a mission to bring body of his mentor and fellow Toledan Cardinal Gonzalo Gudiel back to his home town. A theological problem got in his way; the pope at the time, Boniface VIII, had prohibited the customary division of corpses of deceased churchmen, and so was less likely to let the entire body of a Cardinal leave Rome, when ordinarily he might have let Martínez take a few of the Cardinal’s bones with him to Castile. The author of the prologue (perhaps Martínez himself) links this adventure of his to the adventures of the eponymous hero of the Libro del caballero Zifar.

11th c Syriac MS. Source: Wikipedia

Another way to link the prologue to the adventures of Zifar is to look at both of them of examples of translation: the translation of the Cardinal’s remains from Rome to Toledo, and the translation of the text itself from a Arabic or Syriac into Castilian. In the prologue of Zifar, the author claims that the book “fue trasladada de caldeo en latin e de latin en romance” (‘was translated from Syriac into Latin and from Latin into Castilian’) (ed. González 70). Here we can read Syriac as Arabic, for the two were often seen as interchangeable at the time.

Critics have argued over the question of Zifar’s translation for some time. Most agree that it was not itself a translation from Arabic, but was written in Castilian. Roger Walker, the only critic to argue in favor of an actual translation, writes that the Zifar was a ‘clearly Semitic ring’ to it (Walker 33 n 29). Perhaps more interesting than whether or not the work is a ‘real’ translation is this: If the work is not a translation from Arabic, why does the author use so many proper nouns and place names that appear to have been adapted from or invented in imitation of Arabic? What is the meaning of the ‘clearly Semitic ring’? Why the performance of translation?

The answer is complicated and lies at the intersection of Western Christendom’s relationship with the East, Castile’s relationship with Western Europe, and finally, with Castile’s relationship with al-Andalus, its neighbor to the south that was rapidly being incorporated into Castile itself. In short, relics and texts were arms and currency in a pan-Mediterranean struggle for military, spiritual, and economic supremacy between Latin Christendom and Islam.

Arthur Rackham, from The Romance of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, by Alfred W Pollard, 1917. Source: Wikipedia.

Many popular narratives of the time respond to this struggle. The knights of Arthurian tradition, so popular throughout Western Europe at the time, were the fictional avatars of the Crusading orders. Ferrant Martínez is full aware of this when he compares his journey to Rome to recuperate the body of Cardinal Gudiel to the quests of Zifar, Castile’s answer to Lancelot and Tristan. In one important strain of that tradition, the quest is to recuperate a sacred relic from the East, namely the Holy Grail. This tale type has become central to Western Narrative: any high-stakes search becomes “the Holy Grail” of its context, much as we have come to refer to any geographic center with great symbolic importance to a given community as a “Mecca.” The Grail cycle, in turn, was inspired both by the narratives of Saints’ lives and early Christian martyrs, many of which were also set in the East, that served as the back stories of the many Christian relics that Crusaders “recovered” for Latin Christendom during the Crusades. Therefore Zifar’s journey in Eastern lands (which ranges from India to Babylon) draws on the narrative authority both of Saints’ lives set in the East and on the very popular Arthurian tradition, including the Grail Cycle, which was translated into Castilian shortly after Zifar was written.

Currency. (12th c. Almoravid dinar). Source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

However, this being Castile, the East is also the West. We should remember that the Arabic name for what is now Spain, Portugal, and Morocco was simply the Maghreb, the ‘West.’ While French readers imagined traveling to Alexandria or Acre to find Arabic place names, proper names, or anything else Arabic, everything ‘Arabic’ Castilians could ever want was right there in their backyard, al-Andalus, much of which by 1300 had been annexed to Castile. Arabic had a completely different meaning and value in Castile in 1300 than it would in, for example, Canterbury. Castilian kings and nobles, having vanquished their Andalusi neighbors to the south, were great consumers the material and intellectual culture of Andalusi subjects, and conspicuous consumption of the prestigious Andalusi textiles, architecture, and information technology was the norm. Zifar’s performance of Arabic was, in addition to a way of participating in the broader literary culture of Crusade, also a Castilian performance of the intellectual spolia of the domestic conquest of al-Andalus.

Cathedral of Toledo. Source: Wikipedia.

To make things more complicated still, this local legacy of Arabic learning and culture was not limited to the Muslim Andalusi ‘Other’. Ferrant Martínez was a member of the élite of the Church of Toledo, Christians who proudly traced their lineage not to the Castilian conquerors who vanquished King al-Mu’min in 1085, but to the Mozarabs (from Arabic musta’rib or ‘Arabizing’) Christians who had lived in Toledo since before the Visigothic invasions of the fifth century. In their eyes, they were the Blue Bloods, and the Castilians were the arrivistes. These Mozarabs of Toledo were mostly culturally assimilated to the Castilian mainstream by the mid-thirteenth century. They practiced the Roman (and no longer the Mozarabic) rite, and were Castlilian speakers. However, they continued to use Arabic as a notarial language well into the fourteenth century, and Arabic was very much a part of their cultural history, and their group identity.

Mozarabic illumination of Judgment of Babylon, from the Beatus of Facundus (MBN MS Vit.14.2, f. 233v). Source: Wikipedia

Over the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Mozarabic élite of the Church of Toledo struggled to retain control of the bishopric of Toledo. They were often subordinated to bishops from places like France and Italy sent to Toledo by the Pope (with the consent of the King). The French order of Cluniac monks, very influential in Castile, represented an additional threat to Mozarabic power in the region. The Mozarabic legacy was under siege. If we accept that Ferrant Martínez was the author of Zifar, the semiticized knight protagonist is a symbol of Mozarabic identity. Zifar undertakes his quest to restore his family’s lost honor. Martínez undertakes his to restore the body of Cardinal Gudiel to Toledo. In a sense, Martínez is also seeking to restore the honor of the Mozarabic legacy of the Church of Toledo in the face of over two centuries of cultural and organizational domination first by Castilians, and then by France and Rome. Martinez’s quest in the East of the West (Rome), like Zifar’s quest in the East, was a way to reassert the prestige of Toledo’s Mozarabic legacy.

All of these aspects of the struggle for the Mediterranean come together in the Libro del caballero Zifar: The lives of Eastern Saints, the stories of the Western knights errant whose mission is to restore the relics of said saints to the West, the dream of a Christian East promised to the Crusaders and of a Christian West promised by the Castilians, and the struggle of the last Arab Christian community of the West to maintain their identity in the former Capital of Visigothic Hispania.

This post was written in conjunction with a paper for the 2014 Modern Language Association Convention in Chicago. Thanks to Prof. Ryan Giles for organizing the panel on “The Wisdom of Translation.”


  • Bozoky, Edina. La politique des reliques de Constantin à Saint Louis: protection collective et légitimation du pouvoir. Paris: Beauchesne, 2007. Print.
  • Burke, James. “Names and the Significance of Etymology in the Libro del caballero Zifar.” Romanic Review 59 (1968): 161–173. Print.
  • Freeman, Charles. Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. Print.
  • Geary, Patrick J. Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994. Print.
  • González, Cristina, ed. Libro del Caballero Zifar. 3rd ed. Madrid: Catédra, 1998. Print.
  • Hernández, Francisco J, and Peter Linehan. The Mozarabic Cardinal: The Life and Times of Gonzalo Pérez Gudiel. Tavarnuzze (Firenze): SISMEL edizioni del Galluzzo, 2004. Print.
  • Nelson, Charles L, trans. The Book of the Knight Zifar: A Translation of El libro del cavallero Zifar. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1983. Print.
  • Walker, Roger M. Tradition and Technique in El Libro Del Cavallero Zifar. London: Tamesis Books, 1974. Print.
  • Walsh, John K. Relic and Literature: St Toribius of Astorga and His Arca Sancta. Ed. A. D Deyermond and Billy Bussell Thompson. St Albans: David Hook, 1992. Print.
  • Williams, John. “Cluny and Spain.” Gesta 27.1/2 (1988): 93–101. JSTOR. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.




Andalusi learning, chivalric adventure, and the division of corpses: The Book of the Knight Zifar

The Arthurian romance novel was wildly popular in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Ever since Chrétien de Troyes turned the Celtic legends of Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere into a proper romance, writers had been turning out volume after volume of sequels, prequels, and what amounted to medieval fan fiction of the Arthurian franchise. Arthurian knights in shining armor were everywhere. People were naming their kids “Tristan” and “Guinevere.” Little boys wanted to be Lancelot when they grew up. These stories have staying power: recent Hollywood productions of Arthurian chivalric romances star such hunky leading men as Clive Owen (Arthur) and the ubiquitous James Franco (Tristan).

Aside from entertaining audiences with tales of knights, ladies, and wizards all questing and casting spells and pining away for each other, these novels served a ‘higher’ purpose —they were meant to connect ancient history with contemporary history, to provide readers with a broad historical perspective, a sense of continuity, and to legitimize current rulers as heirs to ancient legacies of political power that went back all the way to the days of the Roman Empire. Arthur was descended from both Roman and British parents, and the young lovers Floire and Blancheflor became the parents to the ancestors of Charlemagne. This way, British and French authors could combine local lore and the political credibility with those of the classical tradition that gave Europe its Church, its lingua franca (Latin), and by extension many of its colloquial Romance languages that descended from Latin: the many languages spoken in what are now England (where Norman French was the language of the court from the 11th to the 13th centuries) Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy.

First printed edition of the Spanish Demanda del santo grial (Seville, 1528)

The Arthurian stories were as popular on the Iberian Peninsula as they were north of the Pyrenees. Full Castilian translations of the Lancelot cycle and some of the legends of the Quest for the Holy Grail, along with books about Merlin and Joseph of Arimathia appeared at the beginning of the fourteenth century, but the stories were well known and beloved by Iberians for at least two full centuries prior. Troubadours sang about Lancelot and Tristan as early as the 1100s, when Chrétien de Troyes was writing his novels. People sang ballads narrating single episodes drawn from Arthurian legends.

Just around the turn of the fourteenth century, some twenty years before the Castilian translations of the Arthurian books were made, an anonymous author wrote a book in Castilian about the adventures of a knight named Zifar (more on the funny name later), or alternatively The Knight of God. In some ways this Zifar was very much like the knights of Arthurian tradition. He galloped around looking for adventures, damsels in distress, the poor and defenseless in need of a champion. He spoke like an Arthurian knight, in elevated speech studded with wise sayings and proverbs. And the book was heavy on swordfights and trash-talking, cocky bad guys who inevitably meet their comeuppance via cold steel.

Zifar and Grima (BNF Espagnol 36, RC-A-04592)

But our Zifar, like so many medieval Iberian interpretations of cultural forms that crossed the Pyrenees, was, well, different. Instead of obsessing over some impossibly beautiful but inaccessible lady (in the style of French and English courtly lovers and troubadours) he was married to a woman he loved, with whom he had two sons, and who traveled with him —at least at the beginning of the book— on his adventures. He was really religious, and all of his knightly deeds were performed not (as was de rigeurfor Arthurian types) in the name of his lady, but in that of God or the Virgin Mary. He was righteous to a fault, and tended to moralize— a lot. What’s more, his book is full of proverbs, sayings, exemplary tales, and epigrams. So much so that at times it reads more like a collection of proverbs or a manual for writing sermons than a Tristan or Lancelot knockoff. What’s more, the fantastic geography typical of Arthurian novels replete with made-up personal names and place names in Zifar begins to sound like Arabic, a language not exactly foreign to in the context of medieval Toledo, which was ruled by a Muslim king until it was conquered by Alfonso VI of Castile and Leon in 1070. Taken together, the book is something like an allegory for medieval Castilian cultural history told in the form of a chivalric adventure novel.

Ferrant Martínez pleads his case before Pope Boniface VIII
(BNF Espagnol 36, RC-A-04588)

The book’s prologue sheds light on some, but not all, of Zifar’s idiosyncracies. It was written by Ferrant Martínez, Archdeacon of the Church of Toledo and protégé of the great, recently deceased Cardinal Gonzalo Pérez Gudiel, native of Toledo who went on to an illustrious career in the Church and who was buried in the Vatican. Before turning the stage over to the adventures of Zifar, the Knight of God, Martínez tells us of his own epic adventures. He sets out to Rome in the Jubilee Year 1300 to convince the Pope (Boniface VIII) to let Martínez bring the body of Cardinal Gudiel back to Spain to be buried in the Cathedral of Toledo as per the Cardinal’s last will and testament. The Pope does not like this idea one bit. We bury Cardinals in Rome, he says, period. But that is not exactly true. A couple of Cardinals were buried outside of Rome. Most Cardinals were buried in Rome AND elsewhere. That is, after they died their bodies were typically divided so that parts of their remains might be buried in Rome and other parts in cathedrals in their homelands, or in other cathedrals with some sort of ecclesiastical or political connection to the deceased in question. All of which is pretty icky when you think about it: one had to dig up the body, boil the bones, and divide them up for shipping to their various destinations.

Dem bones

The pope who denied Martinez’ request Pope Boniface VIII found it fairly icky as well, and in fact some four years before Cardinal Gudiel’s death, the Pope had published a letter prohibiting division of corpses as an act of ‘detestable brutality’ (Hernández and Linehan, Mozarabic 398). However, this Boniface was not merely squeamish —he objected to the division of corpses on philosophical grounds. In the thirteenth century there was a massive debate afoot at the University of Paris, where many of the top clergy in Rome trained. Part of this debate had to do with the nature of the human soul. During the twelfth century translators working in Toledo and elsewhere in Spain had brought many works of Arabic philosophy over into Latin. These translations spurred massive debates among Catholic Theologians (most notably St. Thomas Aquinas) who struggled to reconcile the ideas of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers with Catholic doctrine. The question of the nature of the human soul was an important piece of this larger debate, and Catholic theologians tended to fall in with the ideas of Ibn Sina (Avicenna in Latin) or Ibn Rushd (Averroes in Latin). Followers of Avicenna held that the soul had substance, resided in the body, and was indivisible. Followers of Averroes believed that the soul was divisible and did not reside in the body as substance.

But back to our Cardinal’s body and our squeamish pope. Pope Boniface sided with the Avicennists, and his interpretation of the Avicennist position on the soul meant that it was wrong to divide the bodies of deceased churchmen —that was something only an Averrorist would do, for Pete’s sake! So Martínez now had to choose between Rome or Toledo. This arcane theological argument had real, concrete implications: only ONE cathedral would house the bodies of important churchmen. They would now have to compete for the remains of prestigious deceased, and this had very real implications for men like Ferrant Martínez, who otherwise would be content bringing a wing or a thigh back to Toledo instead of the whole bird. Thanks to Avicenna and Averroes, it had to be the whole bird.

Get a good one

But what, you may ask, does all this have to do with the adventures of our very Christian, quasi Mozarabic, and sort of Arthurian knight Zifar? In the pages of Zifar we see all the political, cultural and spiritual issues of the times in Castile played out in chivalric narrative. The struggle with Islam both on the peninsula and the Crusades in the East are projected onto the fictional Kingdoms of Mentón and Tigrida, set in the Middle East. The Castilian debt to Andalusi learning and culture comes through in the protagonists’ names and impressive command of Andalusi wisdom. The whole book is a sort of allegorical road map for navigating medieval Castilian culture, from the assimilation of Andalusi learning to the popularity of Arthurian romance to the deeply ingrained proselytic impulse that was product of a centuries-old culture of conversion of the Peninsula’s Jews and Muslims.

The great irony in the question of the body is that Gudiel himself had ordered the a translation of Avicenna into Latin, the same translation that made possible Bonfiace’s decision to ban the division of corpses and thereby nearly keep Gudiel from returning, after his death, to his beloved Toledo. The legacy of Andalusi learning was, in the adventures of Zifar in Mentón as in the adventures of Ferrant Martínez in Rome, the engine that kept events turning in Spain and in Rome as well.


  • Brownlee, Marina. “Romance at the Crossroads: Medieval Spanish Paradigms and Cervantine Revisions.” The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 253–266. Print.
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  • —, ed. Libro del Caballero Zifar. 3rd ed. Madrid: Catédra, 1998. Print.
  • Hernández, Francisco J, and Peter Linehan. The Mozarabic Cardinal: The Life and Times of Gonzalo Pérez Gudiel. Tavarnuzze (Firenze): SISMEL edizioni del Galluzzo, 2004. Print.
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This post was written in conjunction with a paper I’m giving titled  “El Libro del Cavallero Zifar: Performing ‘Spanishness’ in the Mediterranean Context at the 2013 Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association (Vancouver, WA), 10 October 2013. Thanks to Prof. Anthony Cárdenas for organizing the session.