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

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

Escorial MS Árabe 1876, f1v-2r

Escorial MS Árabe 1876, f1v-2r

Ziyad ibn ‘Amir al-Kinani

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

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

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

Ziyad and Arabic literary tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ziyad and the Arthurian tradition in Iberia

Clive Owen as King Arthur in 2004

Clive Owen as King Arthur in 2004

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Alhambra, Granada (Source: Wikipedia)

Alhambra, Granada (Source: Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aragonese expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean

The Crown of Aragon in 1441 (source: Wikipedia)

The Crown of Aragon in 1441 (source: Wikipedia)

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

Arms of Valencia (source: Wikipedia)

Arms of Valencia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Islam in Tirant

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is she or isn't she?

Is she or isn’t she?

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

Pal, you're no Amadis de Gaula

Pal, you’re no Amadis de Gaula

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some thoughts on Asturian mythology

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

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



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

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

Asturias, paraíso natural

Asturias, paraíso natural

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

intimate contact

intimate contact

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

Iglesia de la Santa Cruz, Cangas de Onís

Iglesia de la Santa Cruz, Cangas de Onís

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

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

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

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

remote geography helps

remote geography helps

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

Alberto Álvarez Peña

Alberto Álvarez Peña

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

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

La xana image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

La xana
image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

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

el cuélebre image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

el cuélebre
image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

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

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

frog prince

pucker up

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

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

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

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

El ñuberu image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

El ñuberu
image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

el trasgu image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

el trasgu
image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

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

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

el diañu burllón image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

el diañu burllón
image: Alberto Álvarez Peña

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

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

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



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

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

Drawn to narrative Source: Telegraph UK

Drawn to narrative
Source: Telegraph UK

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

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

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

It's a new world

It’s a new world

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

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




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

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

the light of theory

the light of theory

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

Yes Virginia, there is a BA in Spanish

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

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

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

A boost for Portuguese

A boost for Portuguese
Source: Wikipedia

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

 Castro vs Sánchez Albornoz etc

Samuel G. Armistead 1927-2013
Source: eSefarad

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

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

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



Let them read Hanagid
Source: eyeonspain.com

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

Ángel Sáenz-Badillos

Ángel Sáenz-Badillos 1940-2013

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

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


The way forward
Source: urbanlivingokc.com

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

 Works cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is where the all action happens

This is where the all action happens
Source: Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.




Cultural exchange in the literatures and languages of medieval Iberia

This entry is based on a public lecture I gave at the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute in NY on 29 October 2013 [link to video]. My thanks to Hilary Ballon, Deputy Vice Chancellor of NYU Abu Dhabi, Prof. Zvi Ben-Dor Benite of NYU Department of History, and Prof. S.J. Pearce of NYU Department of Spanish and Portuguese for the invitation and for their hospitality in NY.

This lecture is dedicated to the memories of two recently deceased teachers and colleagues, Prof. Samuel Armistead and Prof. María Rosa Menocal, both of whom paved the way. Que en Gan ‘Eden estén, may they rest in peace.

Tonight I am going to talk about the role of literature in cultural exchange in one interesting —but not unique— cultural moment in a part of the world that was at once of the cultural capitals of the Islamic world and a very important religious center of Western Christianity. Most of us think of the Iberian Peninsula as the point of embarkation of Columbus and Cortés, or as the site of a bloody civil war in the 20th century. Tonight I would like to take you back before all of this, to a time when Europe had yet to set its sights on the New World, before modern nation states and national languages and national cultures.

Celtic Invasions

Like much of the world, the lands that are now Spain and Portugal were always a crossroads of different ethnic and linguistic groups. The people who are now known as the Basques migrated there during the mists of prehistory. Celts navigated their way across the Bay of Biscay and established colonies on Spain’s northern coast thousands of years ago, mixing with local Iberian tribes. Phoenicians established trading posts in southern cities such as Cadiz and Málaga well over two thousand years ago. The Romans pacified the Peninsula during the third to second centuries BCE, giving it the name Hispania, and its Romance languages, several of which are still spoken today. Visigoths came over the Pyrenees after the disintegration of Roman political power and installed themselves in Toledo, where they ruled over Hispania for over two centuries. In the eighth century CE, Muslim forces crossed the Straits of Gibraltar from Africa and in short order pacified the entire Peninsula. From 711, there would be Muslim kings parts of the Peninsula until Boabdil, King of Granada, lays his arms at the feet of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel the Catholic in 1492. From a European perspective, this period of Muslim political dominance is what most distinguishes the history and culture of the Iberian Peninsula.

Muslim conquest of al-Andalus

The Muslims who conquered and settled the Iberian Peninsula — overwhelmingly North African Berbers with a sprinkling of Eastern Arab élites— created a society that has no peer in Western Europe in terms of its multiconfessionality, its coexistence of the three major Abrahamic traditions.

Al-Andalus was a unique case in Western European history. Nowhere else in Western Europe was Islam the state religion and Arabic the state language for significant periods of time. Consequently, there is nowhere else in Western Europe, until very recently, where Muslims, Jews, and Christians, lived and worked together under a political system that espoused —but did not always adhere to— a doctrine of religious tolerance. I am referring to the Islamic doctrine of dhimma, the concept that the non-Islamic Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Judaism, were considered fellow Ahl al-kitab, ‘People of the Book,’ and as such are granted religious freedom and protections from persecution. This is a unique fact in the history of Western Europe. The only other case is that of Islamic Sicily, which was a far shorter time period and which left a very interesting, but ultimately shallower historical footprint.

Great Mosque of Cordova

I want to be very clear that I am not talking about a Golden Age of Tolerance here. Laws are one thing and people are another. We do not always respect doctrine. There was sectarian violence in al-Andalus, and the protections granted to Christian and Jewish religious minorities were a far cry from what we would expect in a modern democracy. They were not considered the equals of their Muslim counterparts. They paid a poll tax and were barred from occupying certain positions in government. However, they enjoyed the right to practice their religions, to organize and govern their own affairs autonomously, provided they did not offend Islam or Muslims in doing so.

This legacy of tolerance, while no utopia, was a significant historical fact and that made the examples I am about to discuss possible, at a time when religious minorities elsewhere in Western Europe fared considerably worse on the whole. What’s more, the material culture of al-Andalus far surpassed that of the rest of Christian Europe.

detail of tile from the Alhambra palace, Granada

The Andalusi capital, Cordoba, in the tenth century boasted lit streets, public baths, and vast libraries when Germany and France were in the depths of what we like to call the Dark Ages. European visitors to the Caliph’s court in Cordova were flabbergasted by the luxury and cultural refinement they encountered there. To be sure, this was not the daily reality of all Andalusis, but when we talk about al-Andalus we should think of fifteenth-century Florence in terms of wealth and cultural refinement. To this day “al-Andalus” in the Arab world means ‘wealth, opulence, and artistic refinement and is used heavily in branding things like shopping malls and hotels.

al-Andalus Mall, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Today as I’ve said I’d like to show you how this period of cultural wealth and relative tolerance found expression in literature, in a series of five examples that span as many centuries, some from a context of Muslim government and some from Christian kingdoms.

The city of Cordova in the tenth century was home to the court of the Umayyad Caliphs and the most populous, most technologically advanced, and wealthiest city in Western Europe. It was also a city where Classical Arabic was the official language of government and of state religion, of the literary establishment and of high culture. But it was not the only language spoken or written by Andalusis. Christians, Muslims and Jews spoke colloquial Andalusi Arabic and a dialect of Latin we’ll call Andalusi Romance. Jews prayed and wrote in Hebrew in addition to Classical Arabic. So the linguistic reality in al-Andalus at this time is one of widespread bilingualism both in spoken and in written language.

Andalusi poet singing, from Bayad wa-Riyad, 13th century, one of three surviving illustrated manuscripts from al-Andalus

Our first example is drawn the poetry of the court, and represents a striking innovation in the kind of songs that Andalusi poets recited and sang. We should remember that poetry, and “fancy” poetry of the type one might hear at court served a very different purpose in the tenth century than it does for us in the US in the twenty first. Poetry was political propaganda, it was a means to celebrate or revile public figures, it was a way to celebrate a victory or commemorate an important event. Poets created political and social capital in the images and catchy but authoritative phrases they coined. People repeated and recited the most memorable lines in daily discussion and in public and private gatherings. More than just a rarefied art form that one studied in school or that a select group of elite read quietly to themselves, poetry was more like a high-profile medium that traveled from mouth to mouth rather than from smartphone to smartphone.

Until the tenth century, when a poet performed a composition at court he recited it in a singsong voice, in metered monorrhyme lines; that is, every line in the poem ended in the same syllable. There may have been some musical accompaniment but poems were not sung to a melody, they were declaimed, recited.

statue of Muqaddam al-Cabri in Cordova

According to tradition, in the middle of the tenth century, a blind poet named Muqaddam from the town of Cabra near Cordova, made a simple yet radical innovation in Classical Arabic poetry: he wrote poems that were meant to be sung, even danced to. In place of the traditionally metered monorrhyming verses, his songs, written in the same Classical Arabic as the Qur’an itself, were sung to popular tunes, had the variable rhyme scheme and stanza/refrain structure that is still so well known to us from today’s popular music. This was nothing short of revolutionary, a shocking innovation in Arabic poetic tradition.

Even more shocking was the fact that this Muqaddam included bits of these popular tunes in his compositions, tunes sung in not in the exalted language of the Qur’an but rather in the colloquial language of the street, the fields, and the marketplace. The listener would hear the orchestra’s introduction, and soon beneath the classical instrumentation and arrangements would hear the oddly familiar tune of a popular love song, over which the poet would sing in the language of the Qur’an, in formal metaphors and images drawn from classical tradition. And then, at the poem’s end, almost as an afterthought, the last lines became that popular tune itself. The effect was something like hearing a Shakespeare sonnet sung to the tune of a Shakira tune, and then hearing a verse from the Shakira tune at the end, at which point you realize that the sonnet has not just the same tune, but the same theme, and rhymes with the popular song.

I’d like to play you an example of this kind of poem or song by Ibn Zuhr, who was born in Seville in the eleventh century. His song ma li-l-muwallah is a festive bachanal set to popular music. This recording is a modern reconstruction by the Altramar Medieval Music Ensemble from their album titled Iberian Garden.

Muqaddam’s style of poetry became known as the muwashshah, or girdle poem because the individual stanzas were linked together by the refrain as if in a chain or woven belt. Singers in the Arab world still sing muwashshahat in Classical Arabic, most notably the iconic Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. The classical Andalusi musical style still has large audiences in the cities of North Africa, many of which have their own Andalusi orchestras such as this one pictured in Tangiers, Morocco.

Nonetheless, the Andalusi muwashshah was an innovation built on cultural exchange, on crossing boundaries. By brining colloquial Arabic and Andalusi Romance language and popular melodies into the arts of the court, the poets of al-Andalus transformed both the popular lyrics they used as the basis for their learned compositions as well as the idea of what it meant to perform poetry at court.

Jewish Andalusi poets carried this exchange a step further by adapting the new poetry into Hebrew. This, too represented a bold innovation in Hebrew poetic tradition on more than one count. First, it opened up Hebrew poetry to a vast range of ideas, imagery, thematic material, and technique that were previously the province of Arabic. They wrote Hebrew poetry using the language of the Hebrew Bible describing the themes and images of the Classical Arabic poetic tradition. The beloveds described in terms of gazelles or fawns, the lush descriptions of gardens, the metaphors drawn from desert life of the pre-Islamic Arabic poets all of this they recast in biblical Hebrew, sometimes in entire phrases lifted directly from the prophets, the psalms, the narratives of genesis and kings, and especially the Song of Songs or Song of Solomon.

Rabbi Hayyim Louk and the New Jerusalem Orchestra

These were also set to Andalusi classical arrangements, and to this day there are artists such as Rabbi Haim Louk who continue to interpret the Andalusi Sephardic tradition. Here is a short clip from his recent arrangement of a piyyut or devotional poem by the eleventh century poet Solomon ibn Gabirol. Rabbi Louk has set the poem to the tune of a very popular qasidamade popular by the Moroccan singer Abdesedek Chekara, who lived in the twentieth century.

Soon after the time of the poets Moses ibn Ezra and Ibn Zuhr, the balance of power on the Iberian Peninsula began to tilt in the direction of the Christian states in the north.

The Iberian Peninsula before 1031

Asturian Christians from north of Cantabrian mountains began to push Muslim armies back onto the plains in the ninth century, during the days of the Umayyad Caliphate, and by the middle of the tenth century they had conquered large sections of the central plains, where they established their capital in León. Some fifty years later the Caliphate disintegrated, leaving in its wake a collection of petty Muslim kingdoms that competed with each other and with the Christian states to the north for dominance. The Christian kings of Leon and Castile pressed their advantage and by 1076 they had conquered Toledo, the former capital of the Visigothic kingdom. However, it would be another century and a half before the tide turned decisively in favor of the Christians. Historians view battle of Navas de Tolosa in 1212 the key date after which (at least retroactively) the writing was on the wall for al-Andalus.

Alfonso X portrayed in a manuscript of his Cantigas de Santa Maria

Not coincidentally it was around this same time that Christians in Western Europe began to compose serious literary works in the various Romance languages they spoke, carving out space once occupied by their classical language, Latin. This was happening in neighboring countries as well, where increased commerce and the proliferation of universities spurred literary innovations that eventually gave Western Europe its Chaucers and Dantes. In Spain, however, Christian authors worked in the shadow of the considerable intellectual legacy of al-Andalus long after the balance of power on the Peninsula had turned in their favor. What this meant is that literary prestige in Christian Iberia was determined not only by imitation of Latin and French models but by the appropriation and translation of the massive corpus of Arabic-language learning that was produced in al-Andalus by the Christian kings’ Muslim predecessors.

The most famous example of this process was the court of Alfonso X, known as ‘The Learned’, who ruled Castile and León during the second half of the thirteenth century. His father was Ferdinand the Third, the Saint Ferdinand who gave his name to the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. You can still see his legacy in the city seal of LA.

If you look closely, beside the Mexican eagle and serpent and under the California bear, you can see a Castle and a Lion, the arms of the Kingdom of Castile and León.  However, he was even more famous for having conquered the two most important cities in the south of the Peninsula, Cordova and Seville, in the middle of the thirteenth century.

After Ferdinand completed his considerable military conquests, all that was left of the great al-Andalus was the small Kingdom of Granada in the south, which was reduced to the status of client state to Castile and Leon, and remained a harassed tributary state until its eventual defeat in 1492 by the Catholic Monarchs Isabel the Catholic and Fernando of Aragon.

Such was the political landscape when Ferdinand’s son Alfonso X took the throne in 1252. Unlike his father, Alfonso was not a successful military leader and did not continue to expand his father’s territory.  However, Alfonso’s contributions in the areas of science and letters equaled the accomplishments of his father in the military and political arena. Alfonso was the architect of a massive literary project that accomplished two important goals. The first was to establish and exalt Castilian as a literary language, displacing Latin as the most prestigious, most important language of learning at court. He commissioned an impressive corpus of works on law, science, official history, and philosophy, and statecraft that, in the space of a single generation, established Castilian as a prestigious literary language when Italian and French were just getting off the ground as such.

One of the ways Alfonso accomplished this was through translations of Arabic works directly into Castilian. Alfonso employed a team of scholars who translated scores of crucial works of science, philosophy, and wisdom literature into Castilian from Arabic. Just as his father Ferdinand claimed the great cities of al-Andalus for Christian Iberia, Alfonso’s aim was to lay claim to the intellectual tradition of al-Andalus, to reproduce in Castilian the curriculum that produced the great scholars of al-Andalus.

This was only a part of the Castilian vogue for all things Andalusi. The victorious Christian court consumed Andalusi textiles, music, architecture, and material culture with an enthusiasm rivaled only by its hunger for Andalusi learning. This transfer of Andalusi intellectual culture to the Castilian court was a forerunner of the European Renaissance, a flowering of Greek science and learning delivered by the conduit of Andalusi civilization.

As a result, Alfonso’s court was arguably the most sophisticated, most technologically advanced court in Western Christendom, which, in his estimation, made him worthy of the title of Holy Roman Emperor. He never achieved this honor, but what he did do was make available in the vernacular language of the court, a massive library of high-tech and cutting edge works of mathematics, astronomy, natural sciences, philosophy, and most important for our discussion this evening, literature.

Castilian translation of Calila e Dimna

In 1251 Alfonso commissioned a translation of the classic Arabic work of gnomic narrative, Kalila wa-Dimna or ‘Kalila and Dimna.’ The book is a collection of exemplary tales, similar in structure to the 1001 Nights, told to a Lion king by two courtiers, jackals, one named Kalila and the other Dimna. This way of telling stories, these stories within stories, came to Arabic from Indian tradition and dates back to at least the first century CE. As we will see, through the Alfonso’s translations this tradition reached Europe and provided one of the inspirations for the modern novel. In Kalila wa-Dimna, The jackals told stories that provided political advice to the lion, and was a form of manual for political survival in narrative form, akin to the ‘Mirror of Princes’ genre cultivated in Western Europe in Latin. In many of the exemplary tales contained in the book, the main characters are discussing a political problem faced by the Lion king, and Kalila or Dimna offer advice in the form of a story that illustrates the way to control the situation.

This model of telling stories introduced to the nascent vernacular literature by Alfonso the tenth, became a vogue in Europe and were widely and successfully imitated. Giovanni Boccaccio borrowed the idea for his Decameron, a collection of tales told to each other not by advisors and kings but to a group of Florentine courtiers fleeing an outbreak of plague in the countryside. Geoffrey Chaucer followed suit in his Canterbury Tales, his collection of stories told by a group of pilgrims traveling from London to Canterbury. Both of these examples leave the courtly setting and political context behind but in both cases the stories are a bulwark against some danger, not the intrigue and political hijinx of the royal court but the lurking danger of plague, or the perils of the medieval English highways.

This tradition of appropriating Andalusi learning and material culture became the prestige model for courtly culture in Castile. For centuries, Castilian nobles were avid consumers of Andalusi textiles, architecture, ceramics, food, and music. This phenomenon was difficult to characterize. Were these Castilians simply cynically aping and appropriating the culture of the civilization they had essentially defeated and with whom they were sporadically at war for as long as they could remember? Or was Andalusi culture part of Castilian culture? Politically it was clear that Castile was a Christian kingdom, but it was one that counted many thousands of Andalusi Muslims, Jews and Christians in its population. Some cities remained essentially Andalusi in their cultural life for centuries after being conquered by Christian armies. In Toledo, for example, Arabic was used as one of the classical languages of the Mozarabic Christian community, the descendents of the Christian community of Andalusi Toledo. Though that city was, as we have mentioned, conquered by Castile in 1070 CE, Mozarabic scribes continue to file land deeds and other documents written in Arabic for over three centuries. In the Crown of Aragon, the city of Valencia, conquered by Aragon in the early thirteenth century, continued to be a center of Andalusi culture and a vibrant Arabic-speaking community for over two hundred years. Politics and religion aside, it was sometimes difficult to say where al-Andalus ended and Castile began.

Nowhere is this confusion more evident that in the work of Alfonso’s nephew, the powerful nobleman Don Juan Manuel, author of the collection of tales known as El Conde Lucanor, the tales of Count Lucanor. Juan Manuel was, after the king, the most powerful man in Castile. He was governor of the border state of Murcia, and had extensive diplomatic experience dealing with the kingdom of Granada. Like his uncle Alfonso, though perhaps not quite so prodigiously, he wrote a series of works of noble interest, ranging from his treatise on politics El Libro de los Estados, the ‘Book of the Estates’ to works on hunting and chivalry, to his most famous book, the Conde Lucanor. The structure of this collection of tales tells us the story of the continuing assimilation of Andalusi learning in the court of Castile and what intellectual and cultural fruits this process bore. Like Alfonso’s Kalila wa-Dimna, Conde Lucanor begins with a story about a ruler in need of advice. In Juan Manuel’s book this ruler is a member of the high nobility, but not a king, like Juan Manuel himself. His advisor Patronio responds to specific questions about real-life political predicaments posed to him by the Count. Don Juan Manuel takes the structure of Kalila wa-Dimna as a starting point, but transforms the animal fables and out-of-time-and-place anecdotes of the Arabic work into relatively realistic stories set in places like Cordova and Toledo. He gives his characters Castilian or Andalusi names and sometimes includes tales about historical figures from the region. He weaves together material drawn from folklore, from official histories, historical anecdotes, Latin manuals of materials for sermons written by Dominican friars, and tales from local oral tradition. Many of the stories in Conde Lucanor are also found elsewhere in other Latin or Arabic versions. In one famous case, he includes the tale of a wise magician and a foolish Churchman that is found in only one other source: a Hebrew book written in Castile in during the time of Alfonso X.

This tale and its transformations from Castilian folktale to the Hebrew literary work of Ibn Sahula to the Conde Lucanor of Juan Manuel provides us with another example of how literary materials and traditions move between religious and linguistic groups in medieval Iberia. A further example of Castilan literary innovation that was made possible by the translation work carried out by Alfonso’s teams is found in a curious book by the title of El libro del cavallero Zifar, ‘the Book of the Knight Zifar.’

Miniature of Zifar and Grima from Libro del Caballero Zifar (15th c. manuscript) (Bibliothèque Nationale Espagnol 36)

This book tells the story of a knight errant who in some ways might have been drawn from books about Arthur and Lancelot, but in other ways is a sort of frame character himself who serves as justification for the exposition of a large corpus of proverbial sayings and maxims drawn from Alfonso’s translations and other Eastern sources of wisdom literature. Like the Conde Lucanor, the Book of the Knight Zifar is the result of the second generation of the appropriation of Andalusi learning, the incorporation of Andalusi wisdom literature into the Arthurian Chivalric Romance. As such it is more than the story of a knight’s adventures; it is the story of the Castilian Christian appropriation of Andalusi learning and what that means for the culture of the court, projected onto the familiar literary figure of the knight errant.

Zifar is an exceptional knight who bears a most inconvenient curse that causes his horse to die every ten days. He is separated from his wife and children, is shipwrecked, falls in love with various women, and finally becomes king and is reunited with his family. The saga continues with the adventures of his second son Roboán, who embarks on a career of knight errantry whose narration is studded with proverbs, sayings, and philosophical musings, all with a very Christian moralizing yet Mediterranean cosmopolitan viewpoint. The chivalric qualities of the Zifar and Roboán are always described in terms of Christian values, and even graphic depictions of bloody combat are framed in terms of the theology of just war.

Some have argued that the book was itself translated from Arabic as part of the massive translation project of Alfonso the tenth. Many of the characters have names that may well be derived from Arabic words. Zifar himself may be loosely derived from the Arabic verb Safara, ‘to travel,’ which yields ‘safari’ in English. His wife Grima, maybe a corruption of the Arabic Karima, ‘noble, precious.’ Many of the place names are suggestive of place names drawn from medieval Arabic works of geography. The land that Zifar’s son eventually comes to rule, Tigrida, is located between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, in what we know call Iraq.

What is interesting about the “Eastern” features of the Book of the Knight Zifar is that they are largely window dressing. The conceit of translation from Arabic is an allegory for the transmission of learning from al-Andalus to Castile, a confirmation of the prestige of the Andalusi intellectual legacy, but not an actual exploitation of it. Here the exchange of learning from al-Andalus to Castile is framed not in terms of a manual of political dominance but in a fantasy of Christian morality and knightly excellence, with a sprinkling of statecraft similar to that found in Kalila wa-Dimna and Conde Lucanor. It is an allegory of the development of Castilian courtly culture in the wake of the Christian conquest of al-Andalus.

Thus we see that in the thirteenth century as in the twenty-first, novels and politically flavored fiction have as much to do with current events as they do with art and storytelling. In the cases of Don Juan Manuel’s Conde Lucanor and the anonymous Libro del cavllero Zifar, the authors tell their versions of the story of the the new, Christian-ruled al-Andalus. The winners tell story of what the intellectual culture of the Castilian court becomes, after enjoying the intellectual spoils of war, the Andalusi legacy of learning and science.

My last two examples this evening come to us from the minority cultures of Christian Iberia, and demonstrate a different type of literary cultural exchange. They are not about how the triumphant majority exploits and incorporates the learning of the vanquished, but rather how a minority culture makes use of the literary languages and building blocks of the dominant culture. I wish to demonstrate how the Muslim and Jewish subjects of these Christian monarchs made sense of the world in which they found themselves living, one in which they were not guaranteed the same institutional protections afforded to religious minorities in al-Andalus. While some Christian Iberian monarchs practiced certain forms of religious tolerance at certain times, there was no Catholic doctrine of tolerance to serve as a guide for political action. Consequently the fortunes of Castile’s Muslim and Jewish populations were dependent upon the whims of the monarch and upon the mood of the church, the nobility, and of the mob.

After the Christian conquest of al-Andalus, the fortunes of the Muslim populations of areas like Valencia and Murcia took a sharp turn for the worse. Rather than live under Christian rule as a religious minority, the ruling elites fled to Granada or North Africa, and the great majority of Muslims living under Christian rule were either tenant farmers or artisans. While most communities enjoyed the right to continue practicing Islam into the sixteenth century, there was a severe brain drain that cut the legs out from underneath institutional Islamic life in Christian Iberia, and began a long process of cultural deprivation that would become extreme in the years following the conquest of Granada.

The Capitulation of Granada, by Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz: Boabdil confronts Ferdinand and Isabella. 1882

1492, as you all know, was an important year for a number of reasons. We all know about the first voyage of Columbus, but it was also the year of the defeat of Granada, when the triumphant Catholic Monarchs Isabella the Catholic of Castile and Leon and Ferdinand of Aragon took possession of the Alhambra, thus ending the existence of Islamic political power in Western Europe. This military defeat by no means signaled the end of Islamic life in Christian Iberia. In fact, according to the Capitulaciones de Granada, the surrender treaty offered to Granada’s Muslim population by Ferdinand and Isabella, Granadan Muslims enjoyed very explicit protection of their religious freedoms, including the right to practice Islam, to organize the affairs of the Muslim community according to shari’a law, to educate their children in madrassat, and to enjoy representation at court, all in perpetuity:

Their highnesses and their successors will allow [all the people of Granada] great or small, to live in their own religion, and not permit that their mosques be taken from them, nor their minarets nor their muezzins. . . nor will they disturb the uses and customs which they observe. (Constable 345)

However, a decade after the fall of Granada the pious and severe Isabel had a change of heart, and reneged on the terms set out in the Capitulations. Under the influence of her confessor, the ambitious and zealous priest Fray Franciso Jiménez de Cisneros, the Catholic Monarchs prohibited the practice of Islam in 1502, and required all Muslims to convert to Christianity or quit the kingdom. These hastily converted and poorly catechized Muslims became known derogatorily as ‘Moriscos,’ little Muslim-ish new Christians, neither properly Muslim nor properly Christian.

This disastrous moment did not in any way, however, mark the end of Islam in Spain. Rather, it marked the beginning of a new phase of clandestine or crypto-Islam, a transformation of traditional Islamic life to the new straitened circumstances. The brain drain that resulted from the near total exile of Islamic elites from the peninsula meant that it became very difficult to receive formal instruction in Islamic religion, law, and even in the classical Arabic language. Although some crypto-Muslims in places such as Granada and Valencia continued to speak colloquial Andalusi Arabic, the new prohibitions eventually ensured that almost none had any real proficiency in Classical Arabic, and even fewer were able to compose original texts in the language. Once Philip the Second prohibited the Arabic language itself in 1567, it became extremely dangerous to have any book written in Arabic in one’s possession. This applied equally to works of poetry, law, history, or fiction as it did to the Qur’an and its commentaries. By the middle of the sixteenth century, just as the struggles between Catholics and Protestants were reaching a fever pitch on the European continent, Islam went underground in Spain.

The end of publicly organized Islamic life during the period did not mean the end of Islamic cultural practice or even of Islamic literature in Spain, however. Spanish Muslims continued to smuggle books from Granada and North Africa into Christian realms, but given the near total death of Classical Arabic studies, the distribution and consumption of Islamic texts underwent a curious transformation. Moriscos began to adapt classical texts on Islamic topics into Spanish, the only language that most Spanish Muslims were able to understand. And yet, though the Moriscos could not read Classical Arabic, they clung tenaciously to the Arabic alphabet, the letters in which the Qur’an was written, and wrote their Spanish-language religious treatises in the Arabic letters of the Qur’an.

Manuscript of Aljamiado Poema de Yuçuf, 14th century

So was born Aljamiado literature, written in Spanish using Arabic letters. It was called Aljamiado from the Arabic word `ajamiyya, the language of the `ajami, or non-Arabs. This was a term that had been applied throughout Islamic history to the vernacular languages of non-Arab Muslims, such as Farsi or Tamazigh (Berber). Like many writing systems, the Arabic alphabet had been adapted to write several languages of Muslim communities such as Farsi, Urdu, and even Uigur. Aljamiado literature was the only example of Muslims using the Arabic Alphabet to write in a Romance language.

Authors composed a wide variety of Aljamiado texts. The lion’s share are religious treatises, including basic primers and compendia of Islamic religious practice and thought. There are narrative poems and prose legends celebrating key figures from the Qur’an, devotional poetry, Qur’anic exegesis. But there is also an imaginative literature that includes exemplary tales, translations of the accounts of the epic battles of Islamic expansion, and even an Islamicized version of a popular romance novel, the Amores de Paris y Viana, the Romance of Paris and Viana.  I’d like share with you briefly one remarkable example of this literature to illustrate the extent to which Islamic, Hispanic, and European traditions merge and interplay in the literature of late Spanish Islam.

Mohammad de Vera, Tratado de la creencia, de las prácticas y de la moral de los musulmanes, 17th century. (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Espagnol 397)

The text in question is called La Doncella Carcayona, ‘The Damsel Carcassone’ and it is an Islamicized, Iberian version of a folktale that is told across Europe. There are versions recorded in French, Italian, Russian, and several other languages. It is the tale of the Maiden of the Severed Hands. The tale is a perfectly classic European folktale that contains many familiar motifs and characters known to us from the Grimm Brothers’ collection and other sources: the incestuous King, the magical talking helper animals, the gallant young prince who comes to the aid of the damsel in distress. There is even a wicked mother-in-law, here standing in for the wicked stepmother made famous by Cinderella. And yet, this at the same time a perfectly Islamic folk tale. The author has pressed the tale of the maiden of the severed hands into service as a primer for Islam. The entire point of the story is to demonstrate the powers of Islamic faith and daily prayer.

This version was written in Tunis by a Morisco who had arrived there after the expulsion from Spain in 1613. Our anonymous author wrote this text in Roman characters, a testimony to the extent to which many Moriscos had been almost completely Hispanized and were full participants in the vernacular culture shared by Christians and Muslims.

This damsel Arcayona followed the religion and idolatry of her father, and had a beautifully fashioned silver idol that she worshipped. And, one day, while this damsel was praying to her idol, she sneezed. When she invoked the name of her idol an angel appeared, in shape of a beatiful dove, on top of the head of the idol. The dove spoke to her in clear and measured speech:

¡Ya damsel! You must not continue to do that, but rather say alandulilah arabin allamin

And, just as the angel said this, the idol fell to the ground.

What in a secular European folk tale would be attributed to magic is here attributed to the power of God. The enchanted dove is in fact an angel who (elsewhere in the story) teaches Carcayona the shahada, the Muslim credo or affirmation of faith, demonstrating the power of faith to carry one through difficult times; a fitting lesson for a religious minority that suffered terrible persecution in Spain and an uncertain future in North Africa.

This remarkable literary hybrid demonstrates very clearly that coexistence and cultural sharing is not always an expression of a positive experience or of a tolerant and peaceful society, but that adversity also breeds innovation across traditions. Hopefully these examples can teach us lessons about how different traditions can coexist fruitfully.

The Expulsion of the Jews (Solomon Hart, England, 1806-1881)

The same year in which Granada fell to the Catholic monarchs was also the year in which they decided to expel the Jews from their kingdoms. Like the decision to put and end (or at least try to put an end) to Islam, this catastrophic event gave rise to some significant cultural formations that, like the phenomenon of Aljamiado literature, demonstrate great adaptability and resilience.

I am speaking here of the culture and language of the Sepharadim, the exiled Spanish Jews, who, once settled in their new homes in North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, or elsewhere, continued to speak Spanish, sing the ballads they had learned growing up in Spain, and wrote in Judeo-Spanish to the present day. The Sephardic Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire became, somewhat ironically, a vibrant center of Spanish culture in the heart of Spain’s rival superpower in the Mediterranean, a sort of anti-Spain within Ottoman Constantinople or Smyrna.

Since before the days of al-Andalus, Spain’s Jews had always spoken the vernacular languages of the majority. Hebrew for them was a classical language that was used for prayer, religious study, legal records, correspondence, and was occasionally pressed into service with other Jews as an international lingua franca much the way that Latin was sometimes used among literate Christians. However, there were no toddlers speaking Hebrew in Spain, and Spanish Jews, like their Christian and many of their Muslim counterparts, grew up speaking Spanish or Portuguese or Catalan, singing the same traditional songs, and telling the same stories as their Christian neighbors. Within their community, certain linguistic habits began to develop: key concepts or words from religious practice or formal Hebrew discourse made their way into everyday speech, such that the Hebrew ben adam, literally ‘person’ was (and still is) used to mean “anyone” alongside the Spanish fulano, itself, it is worth pointing out, a loan from Arabic. Likewise certain Hebrew words acquired Spanish grammatical features and were so incorporated into Judeo-Spanish, such as the word amazalado, or ‘lucky’, which is patterned after the Spanish afortunado, ‘fortunate,’ but based on the Hebrew word mazal, ‘good fortune, luck,’ which one often hears among contemporary Jews: mazal tov, or literally ‘good fortune,’ but meaning ‘may you continue to enjoy good fortune.’ This type of finely grained exchange is another example of how closely intertwined the various traditions of the Peninsula had come to be by the late fifteenth century, despite —or perhaps due to— the political and sectarian tensions that characterized the fifteenth century in the region.

As in the case of Aljamiado, Judeo-Spanish was and continues to be a distinctively Jewish form of Spanish. Judeo-Spanish or Ladino is a base of medieval Spanish that over time acquired many loan words from Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Italian and French, but that retains even today a recognizably fifteenth-century grammar and vocabulary that is novel but intelligible to speakers of modern Spanish. In fact, it is a language that was spoken in this city, in fact in this neighborhood for many years. While the existence of a Yiddish press in New York is a well-known fact, there was also between the wars a very active and productive Ladino press.

One of the newspapers, La vara, a humor and political commentary weekly, published in Ladino had its offices right here on Rivington St., a neighborhood perhaps better known for its Yiddish legacy, but where you may currently hear plenty of Spanish spoken. The paper, in addition to running pieces of local and international interest to the Ladino-speaking community in New York, also advertised the services of local merchants and professionals, such as the “Dentista Español” Eli Hanania, who practiced, according to this advertisement, at 21 East 118th St. uptown.

El Dentista Español

This community flourished between the wars, and in the nineteen sixties still boasted members who knew by heart scores of ballads that their great great great grandparents had learned in Spain, and had carried with them for centuries in Morocco, and the Ottoman Empire. While Ladino has almost entirely ceased to be spoken as a natural language — you would be hard pressed to find a baby learning it from her mother today, there are a number of writers and musicians who continue to compose in Ladino and use it as a language of artistic and journalistic expression. Among them is the New York based singer Sarah Aroeste, a fragment of whose 2012 recording of “Scalerica de Oro,” a traditional Ladino song, you are about to hear.

This song, I believe, brings us full circle, from medieval Spain back to current day New York. I hope that through these examples you have some sense of the richness and variety of cultural exchange evident in the literatures and languages of medieval Iberia. I’ve prepared a handout for those of you interested in doing some further reading and of course I am very much looking forward to your questions now. Thank you.

Suggestions for further reading

For an overview of medieval Iberian literature, politics and culture in an accessible format, see the work of the late María Rosa Menocal: The Ornament of the World (Boston: Little Brown, 2002). You may also enjoy her coffee table book that includes a series of essays, photos and literary excerpts: Dodds, Jerrilynn Denise, María Rosa Menocal, and Abigail Krasner Balbale’s The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). Also of interest is a recent volume of poetic texts from late medieval and Early Modern Iberia with accompanying English translations edited by Vincent Barletta, Mark Bajus, and Cici Malik: Dreams of Waking: An Anthology of Iberian lyric Poetry, 1400-1700 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). Also quite interesting is Olivia Remy Constable’s anthology, Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), which includes a broad selection of historical and literary documents from the period drawn from all the languages of the peninsula and translated into English. For a more encyclopedic and academic overview of the literatures and cultures of al-Andalus, see The Literatures of al-Andalus (Cambridge History of Arabic Literature), edited by María Rosa Menocal, Raymond Scheindlin, and Michael Sells (Cambridge: Cambridge Unversity Press, 2000).

On the Arabic poetry of al-Andalus, the bilingual Arabic-English anthology of James Monroe is essential: Monroe, James T. Hispano-Arabic Poetry: A Student Anthology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. Monroe’s landmark anthology has been recently reprinted by Gorigas Press and is easily available. For an overview of the history of al-Andalus see Richard Fletcher, Moorish Spain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) and Nicola Clark’s The Muslim conquest of Iberia: medieval Arabic narratives (London: Routledge, 2012).

Raymond Scheindlin has edited two volumes of bilingual Hebrew/English selections of the major Andalusi Hebrew poets, with explanatory notes for each poem. See Wine, Women, and Death: Medieval Hebrew Poems on the Good Life (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1986) and The Gazelle (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991). More recently Peter Cole has published a large anthology of Hispano-Hebrew poetry with excellent translations of a wide variety of Hebrew poets from Spain, also with excellent notes and bibliography: The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007). His volume of bilingual Hebrew/English selections of poetic texts from the Kabbalah tradition also contains a number of selections by Iberian authors: The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

Chris Lowney includes a chapter on Alfonso X’s translation activity in his A Vanished World: Medieval Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment (New York: Free Press, 2005), as well as chapters on related cross-cultural issues such as Andalusi science, conversion, theology, and the Christian conquest of al-Andalus.

On the history of the Moriscos, see Matthew Carr’s very well-written and impeccably researched Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain (New York: The New Press, 2009). For a more academic approach to the literature and culture of the Moriscos, see Vincent Barletta’s Covert Gestures: Crypto-Islamic Literature as Cultural Practice in Early Modern Spain (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005). The classic volume on Morisco history is Henry Charles Lea’s The Moriscos of Spain: Their Conversion and Expulsion (Philadelphia: Lea Brothers & Co., 1901) which has passed into the public domain and is available online free of charge from the Hathi Trust Digital Library (www.hathitrust.org). It has also been reprinted by Greenwood Press (New York, 1968).

For a popular history of the Sephardic Jews, see Jane Gerber’s The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience (New York: The Free Press, 1992). For a history more focused on linguistics and literature see Paloma Díaz Mas, Sephardim: The Jews from Spain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992). Rabbi Marc Angel has published an excellent synthesis of Sephardic intellectual history: Voices in Exile: a Study in Sephardic Intellectual History (Hoboken: KTAV, 1991).

There is relatively little Ladino literature translated into English. Matilda Koen-Sarano has published two volumes of Sephardic folktales translated into English: King Solomon and the Golden Fish: Tales from the Sephardic Tradition (Detroit: Wayne State University Pres, 2004) and Folktales of Joha, Jewish Trickster (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003). See also the more recent A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa’adi Besalel a-Levi, edited by Aron Rodrigue and Sarah Abrevaya Stein, and translated by Isaac Jerusalmi (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), and An Ode to Salonika: The Ladino Verses of Bouena Sarfatty, edited and translated by Renée Levine Melammed (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).

On the Sephardic community in the United States see also his La America: The Sephardic Experience in the United States (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1982), and the more recent work by Aviva Ben-Ur, Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History (New York: New York University Press, 2009), which contains ample documentation of the Ladino press in New York City.