A Hebrew Troubadour in Spain?

[This post includes material later revised and expanded in Double Diaspora in Sephardic Literature: Jewish Cultural Production before and after 1492 (Indiana University Press, 2015)]

Troubadours were Western Europe’s first highbrow poets to sing in the vernacular (French, Portuguese, German, etc.) as opposed to in Latin.

Troubadours did not invent vernacular poetry. People have always sung in whatever language they spoke. What has new about the troubadours’ work was that they wrote and performed songs in the vernacular language for kings, queens, and other super-élites. Why was this new, all of  a sudden, at the end of the 11th century? Before that time, sophisticated poetry written by educated people was written in a classical language such as Latin, Greek, Hebrew, or Arabic (depending on what part of Europe you were in). Songs sung in the languages that people actually spoke in daily life were everywhere (as they are now), but it was not the type of thing that was acceptable to perform at court, and even if it were no kings were paying poets to write down and perform original songs in French or Portuguese or Italian. Not until the troubadours.

Back in the 11th and 12th centuries when troubadour poetry first flourished, poetry played a very different role from nowadays. These days we tend to think of poetry as some kind of rarefied activity that takes place in dusty libraries or snooty salon parties, or at its most accessible in live performances of slam poets at bars and coffee houses. In medieval Europe, court poets were more like high-profile media figures whose verses communicated political propaganda, shaped the habits of speech and thought of the upper classes, and were rewarded with salaries and bonuses comparable to those of a modern day business executive. They were like studio executives, Mad Men, and rock stars rolled into one. While today we might trot out a poet laureate once or twice a year to recite a few lines at a presidential inauguration or other ceremonial event, medieval troubadours were in the news constantly. They were celebrities.

The first courts to support troubadours who wrote and sang in the vernacular were in the south of France, in places like Aquitaine and the Midi. The first such poet was himself a nobleman of very high rank, William IX of Aquitaine (try to imagine Al Gore making records as good as those of Jay-Z and you’re getting warm). Like modern pop stars, the troubadours cultivated dynamic stage persona, penned autobiographies or had them ghosted by others (razós), and tended to embellish their personal lives in their songs. And much like our hip-hop artists, they matched wits in poetic battles (tensós) that often turned ugly and left participants with hurt feelings.

The troubadour style spread from the south of France north into Germany (minnesingers) and south into the Catalonia and Castile regions of what is now Spain (trovadores). Some 150 years after the whole troubadour style got started, a number of troubadours from France, Spain, and Portugal found their way to the court of Alfonso X ‘The Learned’ of Castile. Alfonso was a prodigious patron of the arts and sciences who himself was an accomplished poet who composed some 200 songs in praise of the Virgin Mary in Galician-Portuguese dialect. At the time of Alfonso’s reign, Castilian (aka Spanish) was used for a lot of things. There were law books, scientific manuals, philosophy books, and works on astronomy, for example. However, when it came to lyric poetry such as love poetry, the languages of choice were Galician-Portuguese and Provencal. Because of this, all the poets at Alfonso’s court, and even Alfonso himself, wrote and performed their work in these languages instead of in Castilian, which was the language of nearly everything else that went on at court.

Modern portrait of Alfonso X of Castile

The one exception at court was a Jewish poet named Todros Abulafia [see my last post on Abulafia and his modern critics], who wrote (as all Jewish writers did in the 13th century in Spain) in Hebrew. He wrote poems on nearly every subject imaginable, leaving behind a collection of some 1200 poems that he himself edited in 1298. He wrote a number of poems dedicated to King Alfonso, and one must wonder if he actually performed them at court in Hebrew for an audience who in all likelihood wouldn’t have understood a word of them (except for the Jewish courtiers who probably would have).

Abulafia was a notable of the Jewish community of Toledo, which at the time was a very well established community that boasted a centuries long history and was regularly represented at court since long before the Christian conquest of Muslim-ruled Toledo (Tulaytula in Arabic) in 1085. Under Alfonso’s administration there were several court Jews who served as financiers, outfitters, tax collectors, and the like.

As a poet Abulafia was heir to a very rich tradition of Sephardic (Spanish Jewish) Hebrew poetry that dates at least back to the 10th century, when Andalusi courtier Dunash ben Labrat first began to adapt classical Arabic poetics to Biblical Hebrew language. This combination, something that was possible only in a tolerant, sophisticated courtly milieu such as that of ninth-century Córdoba, was cultivated by a series of major eleventh and twelfth-century Andalusi (al-Andalus was the Arabic name for Spain) Sephardic poets who are now considered the grandfathers of Hebrew literature: Moses ibn Ezra, Samuel Hanagid, Judah Halevi, and a host of others. If you attend high school in Israel you are tested on them in your exit exam (Hebrew Bagrut). So when Abulafia wrote of love, he often used a Hebrew style was based on the Andalusi Arabic poetry written in Spain in the 900s, 1000s and 1100s. Most of his love poems use this style, but at least a couple of them sound a lot more like the songs the troubadours were writing about their undying love for super-beautiful ladies.

Abulafia’s experimentation with troubadour style was kind of a big deal. Jewish poets in the area around Toledo had been living in a Christian-dominated society for over 150 years when Abulafia wrote. Despite this, they pretty much stuck with the Andalusi style they had inherited from Jewish poets who had lived in Muslim Spain, or al-Andalus. In the eyes of most Jewish writers, the vernacular (Spanish, Catalan, etc) was not a language that was appropriate for writing poetry, and so they tended to downplay the importance of the troubadours, even if their Christian kings and queens thought otherwise. Abulafia was the exception. He was a master of the old Andalusi style, but was also an innovator who was not afraid to go out on a limb and try something new. This did not impress some of his modern critics, but it did not appear to have slowed him down when he was living and working at court. Quite the contrary. He was a popular man, and even accompanied King Alfonso on diplomatic missions abroad.

So, you are probably thinking at this point, what was this troubadour poetry like? How did they sing about love? And how did Abulafia adapt their style in his Hebrew poems?

Troubadours wrote about love in a way that has come to be known as ‘courtly love,’ a kind of poetic game with strict rules about how lovers behave and how they talk about the experience of love. This courtly love style has survived to the present day, and popular songs on the radio still use some of its language and themes.

The courtly lover served his lady like a knight serves a king. He sometimes sang of being her slave, of submitting himself completely to her. This adoration sometimes went over the line into a kind of heresy where they actually took to worshipping the lady instead of God. He would perform any service for her to prove this love, even if she never granted him physical affection. Troubadours described of a spiritual love that made them better people, more noble and pure. Here are a few examples of how troubadours at the court of Alfonso X sang of love, and how Abulafia followed their lead.

(the original texts are from the editions cited below. Translations are mine unless otherwise indicated.)

For Peire Cardenal, writing in Provencal, the act of desiring his lady is even better than kissing her (if you can believe that):

Desirat ai, enquer desir
E voil ades mais desirar
Que tener ma dona e baisar
E luec on m’en pogues jausir!

I have desired, and desire still,
and I wish to go on desiring
rather than to hold my lady and kiss her
in a place where I might enjoy her!

Todros is in complete agreement; this love thing is not about physical gratification. He’s in it for the pain:

I shall not think ever to touch her
even though I spend my life sobbing over her.

And in another poem:

I have no desire to have her, to delight in
her body, only to delight in her soul.

And Pero García Burgalés, a Castilian  who wrote in Galician Portuguese, gets indignant when others suggest he is wasting his time. Pero begs to differ: “Sure she takes my breath away. And if he saw her too,” he sings, “he’d be speechless just like me”:

quando a vejo, que per ren non sei
que lhi dizer: e el assi fará!
Se per ventura lhi dizer quiser
algũa ren, ali u estever
ant’ ela, todo lh’ escaecerá!

when I see her, for I do not in any way know
what to say to her then: and the same thing will happen to him!
If, by chance, he wanted to tell her
something, as soon as he finds himself
in her presence, everything will slip from his mind!
(trans. Jensen 1992: 309)

Todros takes the ball and runs with it. It’s as if he is responding directly to Airas Nunes in his Hebrew poem (my translation), expanding and dramatizing the scene between the poet and his friend who thinks he’s wasting his time on a woman who won’t even talk to him:

When he saw her, even as he spoke ill of her,
His soul began to enter into her light…
Suddenly, his soul was bound to hers
And his heart was locked in the heart of her prison
And even the splendour of her cheek, in its radiance, prevented
his pupils from looking upon her brilliance.
The I fell upon my face, and my soul
was like a woman in her first childbirth who fears the pain
And I would have died, had he not
Reminded me of her, and I woke up thinking of her,
When he said: “What is with you, sleeper? (Jonah 1:6) Look:
There goes ‘that certain lady,’ Arise! Behold her beauty!
I give praise and confess to your beloved hind,
I am her ransom and her sacrifice!
Truly, it is enough for the man who loves her
to see her or to hear her words!
It is doctrine for every nobleman to make his life
a treadstone for her, and to like the dust from her foot!
To suffer completely for her love,
for truly then God shall multiply her reward!
I shall set my heart to serve my love for her for ever
Never shall I ask for her to set me free!
As long as the sun rises in the East, or
As long as the birds sing of her!”

Here Abulafia doesn’t just follow the lead of the troubadours he worked with at court, he takes it to the next level, describing the scene in great detail, exaggerating, even parodying the skeptical friend who is converted to the same religion of love the poet practices.

This is a bold move for a poet who comes from a scene where imitating your Christian neighbors is not usually rewarded. But then, he’s on the royal payroll, and isn’t dependent on the Jewish establishment of Toledo for his livelihood. This autonomy and bravado gets him into trouble in the Jewish community, but it does make for some pretty interesting poetry.

Further reading on Alfonso X, troubadour poetry and on the poetry of Todros Abulafia:

  • Bonner, Anthony. Songs of the troubadours. New York: Schocken Books, 1972. (Anthology of English translations of troubadour poetry).
  • Calvo, Bonifacio. The poems of Bonifacio Calvo: a critical edition. The Hague: Mouton, 1966. (Original Provencal with English translations)
  • Carmi, T. The Penguin book of Hebrew verse. New York: Viking Press, 1981. (Contains a selection of Abulafia’s poems translated into English on pages 410-16)
  • Cole, Peter. The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. (Contains English translations of excerpts of Abulafia’s poems on pages 256-69)
  • Jensen, Frede. Medieval Galician-Portuguese Poetry: An Anthology. New York: Garland, 1992. (Original Galician-Portuguese with English translations)
  • Lowney, Chris. A Vanished World: Medieval Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment. New York: Free Press, 2005. (Chapter 18: “Alfonso the Learned King”)
  • Peire Cardenal. Poésies complètes du troubadour Peire Cardenal (1180-1278). Ed. René Lavaud. Toulouse: É. Privat, 1957.

This post was written with support from the Oregon Humanities Center.

Whose Todros is it anyway? A medieval Hebrew poet between Europe and Israel

[This post includes material later revised and expanded in Double Diaspora in Sephardic Literature: Jewish Cultural Production before and after 1492 (Indiana University Press, 2015)]


Where’s Todros?

Todros Ben Yehudah Halevi Abulafia (1247- ca. 1295) lived and wrote in Toledo in the second half of the thirteenth century. He was active at the court of King Alfonso X “the Learned.” Among Hebrew poets in Christian Spain, Abulafia was unique in several ways: he was the only Jewish poet to enjoy the direct patronage of a Christian king, and dedicated several poems to Alfonso. He was, even among Jews who held positions at court, considered more assimilated, more given over to life among the gentiles, and a famous womanizer, and a partier. He documented some of these exploits in his poems, some of which are excerpted in Peter Cole’s Dream of the Poem (2007). There is also a 2009 Hebrew selection edited by Israel Levin.

Abulafia is a diasporic poet who is a shadowy outsider from any angle. After 1492, he became a poet without a state. In Spain he is virtually unknown, despite having written hundreds of poems at the court of that country’s most intellectually important medieval ruler. He is not mentioned in any of the studies of the Christian troubadours who wrote and performed at Alfonso’s court. He scarcely appears in historical studies of Alfonso’s reign (see Wacks 2010, 194 n 38), even in those that deal specifically with the boom in arts and letters for which Alfonso X is famous (and the reason why he is known as ‘the Learned’).

Jewish scholars have viewed him at times with admiring curiosity, at times with disdain. He is still a bit of an enigma. Peter Cole aptly sums up the diverse opinions scholars have formed of Abulafia: one called him “one of the greatest poets of whom the Jews can boast,” while others dismiss him as a “mediocre epigone” (2007: 493).

Abulafia lived at a time when the upper classes of the Jewish community of Toledo were waging a sort of culture war. One side leaned toward assimilation and materialism, another toward traditionalism and piety. This division was personified in Todros ben Yehudah Halevi and his relative, the ‘other Todros’: Todros ben Yosef Halevi Abulafia, a prominent Talmud scholar and Chief Rabbi of Toledo.

The Brotherhood of the Traveling Manuscript

The story behind his collected poems (diwan) is something that Cervantes (that master of the “found manuscript” conceit) might have cooked up. Up until the late 19th century, scholars of Spanish Hebrew poetry were familiar with Abulafia’s name and had found a few of his poems, but he was a minor player, a footnote. As it turns out, he had written and compiled a huge corpus of his own work – some twelve hundred poems. Abulafia was one of the first poets in Hebrew or the Romance languages to compile his own diwan (collected poems), although this was standard practice among medieval Arab poets.

In the 17th century, an Egyptian Jewish scribe made a copy of Abulafia’s diwan. It passed from one antiquities dealer to another and eventually found its way into the hands of Saul Abdallah Yosef (1849-1906), an Baghdadi Jewish businessman and accomplished amateur scholar. Yosef made a copy of the manuscript and brought it back to to his home in Hong Kong. The Romanian-British Jewish scholar Moses Gaster published a facsimile edition of Yosef’s manuscript, which the Israeli scholar David Yellin used as the basis for a 1932 critical edition. Yosef’s discovery of the manuscript fairly doubled the corpus of Hebrew poetry from the time of Alfonso X, and radically changed our understanding of the poetry of 13th-century Spanish Jewry.

Tell me where you come from, and I’ll tell you what you think about Abulafia

Most interesting about Abulafia is his reception by contemporary scholars. From where I’m standing, as an American Jew living in the 21st century, it doesn’t strike me as at all strange that Abulafia’s poetry sounded like the poetry of his Christian peers. I imagine that even if US Jewish authors typically wrote in Hebrew, their writing would be full of material from American movies, popular music, novels, and poetry. This is precisely what happens with Abulafia’s poetry. He talks about love, at least part of the time, like a Provencal troubadour. Without abandoning the Hebrew poetic tradition of Muslim Spain, he fully participates in the literary tastes of his time, tastes shaped by the Romance-language literatures practiced in Castile.

Moses Gaster

Scholars of Abulafia, Judaism aside, bring to the table very different cultural formations. Most are European Jews who relocated to Palestine before World War II. Their take on Abulafia’s relationship to the cultures of homeland (Jewish) and hostland (Spain) are conditioned by their own relationships to their various homelands and hostlands. Saul Abdallah Yosef was an Arab Jew, who grew up in Baghdad in a very large and vibrant Jewish community that (it being before 1948) was far less conflicted about their Arab-ness than Mizrahi Jews would come to be in post-1948 Israel. His own (relatively) untroubled biculturality allowed him to appreciate Abulafia’s ease with Christian culture. Likewise, Moses Gaster (he was the one who called Abulafia “one of the greatest poets”) was a Romanian Jew who became a British citizen, and an expert on Romanian folklore in addition to Hebrew literature. For him it would have been natural to celebrate Abulafia’s biculturality.

Those critics who were born in or migrated to Palestine/Israel had a different orientation. The Zionist experience reintroduced Jews to sovereignty as once -symbolic homeland suddenly became a modern state. This changed dynamics between diasporic (hostland) and Jewish (now also Israeli) culture, and this changed how critics talked about Abulafia’s poetry.


David Yellin

Heinrich (Henrik, then Hayyim) Brody was Chief Rabbi of Prague and a leader of the Zionist movement in Austro-Hungary before emigrating to Palestine. Together with David Yellin, a native Jerusalemite and fervent defender of Hebrew education (there is a teacher’s college named after him in Jerusalem), Brody dismissed Abulafia’s troubadour-inspired innovations as “mediocre” (cited in Cole 2007: 243) The Romanian-born Israeli scholar Ezra Fleischer, best known for his studies of liturgical poetry, likewise held Abulafia’s assimilating ways in low regard.

Hayim (Jefim) Schirmann, who succeeded David Yellin as Chair of Medieval Hebrew Poetry at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and edited the landmark anthology Hebrew Poetry in Spain and Provence (1954-56), held a very different opinion of Abulafia’s cosmopolitanism. Schirmann, though born in Kiev, attended gymnasium and university in Berlin, emigrating to Palestine in 1934. He was an avid violinist whose interest in music guided his academic interests. He was so committed to secular culture that he lobbied to repeal the ban on the performance of Wagner’s compositions in Israel. Schirmann was not going to let politics get in the way of a good opera. Among Israeli critics he most clearly vindicates Abulafia’s ‘troubadourism’ as a natural characteristic in a diasporic Jewish author.

The more Zionist critics of Abulafia tend to regard his innovations as a sort of ‘betrayal’ of Andalusi poetics (i.e., the poetic style typical of the Jews who lived in Muslim Spain). By the first half of the twentieth century, Andalusi Hebrew poets such as Samuel Hanagid and Moshe Ibn Ezra were firmly established as the grandfathers of modern Hebrew literature. It is somewhat ironic that a generation of European-born critics considered the undeniably Arabic style of the Andalusi Hebrew poets to be the ‘poetic homeland’ of modern Hebrew, while the European-influenced poetry of Abulafia was for them ‘foreign’ and somehow, disloyal to Jewish values.

This post was written with support from the Oregon Humanities Center