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.

 

María Rosa Menocal’s Ornament of the World, courtly poetry, and modern Nationalism

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This is the text of a guest lecture I delivered 28 October 2013 at NYU in Prof. Zvi Ben-Dor Benite’s class MAP-UA 500: Cultures & Contexts: Islam and Judaism: Intertwined Histories

Class reading: Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance, chap. 1-2, and pp. 101-129, 174-188.

Good morning Violets. It is great to be back in New York. Like you I went to college in Manhattan. I now live on the West Coast in an idyllic hippie university town which is very groovy and pleasant and interesting, but as you know there is really nothing like New York. So I thank Professor Ben-Dor Benite and the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute for their hospitality and for the opportunity to speak to you today. I hope that you will join me for my talk this evening at the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute at at 19 Washington Square North at 6pm.

In the fall of 1991 I got a job as a middle school ESL teacher at the Marta Valle Junior High School here in New York, on Rivington and Suffolk Streets. I had just graduated from Columbia with a degree in English. I had studied abroad in Spain and had enough credits in Spanish to qualify for emergency certification in Spanish with the NY Board of Ed. They put me in an ESL classroom. It was November 7th and I was the third hire of the academic year in that position, which gives you some idea as to the nature of the job. Probably about 85 percent of the students were Spanish speakers, Catholics, from the Dominican Republic, 10 percent were Bengali-speaking Muslims from Bangladesh. The faculty was split evenly between US Jews and Latinos. I had found, completely inadvertently, my own laboratory of convivencia, of coexistence between Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

This experience was a catalyst for my thinking about medieval Iberia. During my time in Spain I had become fascinated with Spain’s conflicted relationship with its Semitic cultural legacy. Here was a country that was perhaps the most Catholic country in Europe, historically speaking, and at the same time the most Semitic country in Europe. There was Arabic, Islamic, and Judaic culture all over the place – they just didn’t realize it, or care to admit it, it seemed to me at the time. This cultural tension fascinated me. Obviously Spain would never have become what it is without the contributions of Spanish Muslims and Jews, but the modern impulse to homogenize, to regularize, to whitewash history had its effect, and the result was a modern Spain with a lively substrate of Semitic cultural features just below the surface, and more often than not hiding in plain sight. I was mightily intrigued, but like many undergraduates I was more concerned with socializing, traveling, and entertaining myself than with charting a path for future study or embarking on anything resembling a serious career.

nowhere to hide

In contrast to Spain, in New York in 1991 there was no whitewashing or hiding. The convivencia was messy and in your face. There were regular misunderstandings between the students. Sometimes it was language: one Bangladeshi student, Shumon, was regularly called “Simón” by his classmates. They had conflicting ideas about how the world should work, about religion, about family, about a lot of things. Despite these very real differences, they were all united by the enterprise of learning English and by a school system and larger society that officially regarded them all as equals. Ricardo and Said and Rosalia and one polish kid named Slavomir sat next to each other in class, and more or less managed to get along, or at least not be in constant conflict, which for Middle School is probably as much as you can expect.

This experience, of seeing what convivencia really meant when the rubber hit the road, of what the daily negotiation of linguistic, religious, and ethnic difference looked like on the ground, stayed with me. Eventually I ended up back in graduate school with a mission to study this curious time and place, this culture that produced Ibn Hazm, Ibn Gabirol, Yehudah Halevi, and the other writers and thinkers who populate Menocal’s book as well as the readings for this week’s recitations.

After some experimentation, I landed in a Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Berkeley, where I finished the doctorate in 2003. I might well have completed the work in a department of Comparative Literature or Middle Eastern Studies, but what always seemed to unite the three religious cultures of al-Andalus, or of Christian Spain was the vernacular culture of the place. And this makes perfect sense. It is natural that people who live together, and work together have a common language. It’s logical. They might not pray together, they might not study together, and they may use different languages for those activities, but when they need to buy bread or rent a house or take care of business that has to happen in a common vernacular. This comes through very clearly in the study of the poetry of al-Andalus, especially in the muwashshahat and zajal genres of poetry that flourished in al-Andalus in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries.

Although I did not study with her, I was very much a student of María Rosa Menocal, whose book you have read for today’s assignment. Menocal, who just passed away last year, was a very important figure for those of us who study medieval Iberian culture, and in particular for those of us who specialize in the Hispano-Romance side of the equation but branch out as well into the Hebrew and Arabic materials. She was the one who made Hispanic Studies safe for Hebraists and Arabists.

There have been a number of popular trade books published on medieval Spanish topics in the last twenty years or so, but all of them were written by historians and focused on questions of historical interest, of the activities of kings, wars, and the like. Ornament was the first book written for a popular audience to focus on literature and music in its cultural context. It created quite a splash in the field when it was published. Many, especially historians, scoffed at the story she seemed to want to tell, decrying it as a squishy cumbaya, a rosy fanstasy of coexistence, despite the fact that she herself makes very clear in the introduction that this is not her intention; despite the fact that she deals very plainly with the problems of sectarian violence and discrimination in Ornament’s pages.
This was not the first time Menocal raised the hackles of other experts in our field. Over almost thirty years ago she published a book called The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History in which she challenged the prevailing theory of the origin of French troubadour poetry. Her theory, and really she was picking it up form earlier thinkers like Aloysius Nykl who had taught at Chicago in the 20s, was that troubadour lyric was inspired by Andalusi lyric.

On the face of things this is not outlandish –she basically just suggested that the poets of one country inspired poets in the next country to try composing in a new style. If I told you that American artists were composing Mexican-style corridos or were singing salsa in English this probably wouldn’t raise any eyebrows, but Menocal took on a kind of sacred cow in European literary history. Attributing Andalusi roots to the songs of the medieval troubadours was more like telling a Southern Aristocrat in the 1920s that their great-great-grandfather was from Africa. Menocal’s thesis struck at the roots of some very deeply held convictions about what “European” culture was and was not, and the idea that Andalusi, Arabic, perhaps African culture was somehow responsible for what had long been considered the first (and therefore the most authentic or most important) expression of poetry in the Romance languages was, well, unpopular. But like many ideas that go against received wisdom, Menocal’s thesis has gained wide acceptance. And not a moment too soon. Never have we been more in need of scholars and citizens eager to learn the lessons of the conviviencia laboratory. In the US as in Europe, violence against Arabs or quite often South Asians mistaken for Arabs, Jews, and Africans is on the rise. We need to start thinking about better ways to live with difference. Or, paraphrasing Menocal, if we want the world to become a “first-rate” place, we need to better learn how to live comfortably and productively with people of opposing viewpoints, who have different ways of doing things, of seeing the world.

Without dwelling too long on Menocal’s rich bibliography and interesting academic career, and before we go into the ideas she presents in the reading you’ve completed for today —you have completed it, right, I’d like to tell you something she said in a conference I attended in London about seven years ago, in her keynote speech to the assembled group of Hispanists, she implored us to spend our time on this globe and in this profession strategically. Paraphrasing Andy Warhol, she said: “when you finally get your fifteen minutes of fame, you better spend it saying something that matters.” This was an appeal for us to always keep in mind that our academic activities should be placed in the service of some higher purpose, of the social good, of trying to make the world a better place. While I had always suspected that under the layers of arcana, of dense footnotes, tweed jackets, and chunky jewelry, most academics’ intentions were good, I had never heard a professor say anything so forthright. These words stayed with me, and I would urge you all as well to think about them when you are studying Islamic history or Amazonian anthropology or Biochemistry — how can you take these skills and use them to make things better.

And now back to our regularly scheduled program. In Ornament of the World Menocal writes about a new kind of poetry, the muwashshah, invented by Andalusi poets. The innovation of the muwashshah was to take a popular tune, the type of tune you might sing while working around the house or while folding laundry – remember these are days before radio and mass media, so people had to entertain themselves instead of constantly tuning in. The poet would then take the melody of this popular tune, say Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” and build a literary, learned, classical poem on top of the tune and theme of the popular song. He would then set the poem to music, to a classical Andalusi orchestral setting, and the poem would be sung for the entertainment not of the ‘common people’ whose song provided the melody, but for the King, the élite, the upper crust of Andalusi society. This in itself was quite an innovation, the idea that popular music sung in the colloquial language might serve as the basis for a learned poetic composition worthy of performance before the king and the courtiers. These poems or muwashshahat were evidence of a very special kind of literary multiculturalism. No only did they combine the languages of the court and the street, they also were evidence of Arabic/Romance language bilingualism that was common in most of al-Andalus at the time.

When the Muslim conquerors came in 711 and took hold of the Iberian Peninsula, the natives were a kind of mixture of Iberian, Celtic, Roman, and Gothic peoples who were speakers of Iberian vulgar Latin, the descendent of the spoken Latin of the Roman Empire. All of the Romance languages, Portuguese, French, Italian, and so forth, came from this language. The invasion was carried out by an army comprised mostly of newly Islamicized Berbers and an élite officer corps of Arabs from Syria and Yemen. It was not a highly Arabicized population —meaning that most of the troops did not speak let alone read Arabic— and we must remember that general literacy hovered somewhere between one and two percent in those days, compared with some 90 percent today in the US.

At the end of each muwashshah the poet included a snippet of the popular tune that gave the composition its melody. These snippets, or “exits” —kharjat in Arabic, were in colloquial language, either Andalusi Romance or Andalusi Arabic, further clear evidence of a bilingual society. We have other witnesses to this bilingualism. The very important Andalusi Jewish scholar Moses ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides, who was born in Cordoba, once wrote in a discussion of language that it was not uncommon for Jewish poets in Cordoba in the twelfth century to compose poems in Hebrew, or in Arabic, or in Andalusi Romance. The Hebrew poet Solomon ibn Gabirol once complained, in a long poem about Hebrew grammar, that half of the Jews of Zaragoza spoke “the language of the Christians” and the other half “Arabic” but that neither half had a proper command of Hebrew. Moshe ibn Ezra, who lived also in the eleventh century, wrote that when he was a young man he was in a discussion with a Muslim scholar who asked him to recite the Ten Commandments from the Hebrew Bible in Classical Arabic. Sensing that his interlocutor wanted to make his cherished biblical text sound silly in the “wrong” language, Ibn Ezra replied in kind, asking the young imam to recite the fatiha —the first chapter of the Qur’an, in Andalusi Romance, a language that, according to Ibn Ezra, the imam understood very well. Linguists writing in Arabic in the tenth and eleventh century likewise document several varieties of Romance spoken in different areas of the Peninsula. Romance speakers did not simply dry up and blow away with the Islamization and Arabization of the Peninsula, but rather adapted to the new circumstances, as people tend to do.

We should also remember that the Arabization of the peninsula was, like the Hispanicization of the New World, slow and incomplete. Many of the Berber troops who accompanied the Arabic officers in the first invasion partnered with local women who were Romance speakers, whose children would have been bi- or tri-lingual in Romance and Arabic and/or Berber. By the middle of the eleventh century it is thought that over 80% of Andalusi Muslims were descended from Iberians who had converted to Islam from Christianity and we must imagine that even by the third or fourth generation since the invasion the Arabization of the local populations would have been far from total, particularly in rural areas where people were not in close contact with Arabic-speaking government officials and functionaries. So we can conclude that when an eleventh-century Andalusi poet includes a bit of colloquial Romance in a poem, it is not some exploitation of the language of a Christian minority, but rather a representation of a more generalized bilingualism among all religious groups in the Peninsula.

Regardless of the language one spoke at home in al-Andalus, Andalusi Romance, Andalusi Arabic, Berber, or some combination of the three, the official language of prestige, of the court, of the high culture of the day was classical Arabic. As you have learned, this was not a language exclusive to Andalusi Muslims. The docrtrine of dhimma meant that Christians and Jews were well able to participate in public life, and in rare cases like that of Hasdai ibn Shaprut at the court of Abd ar-Rahman in the tenth century and Samuel Hanagid Naghrela at the court of Badis in Granada in the eleventh, could rise to very high positions. Part of the success of these courtiers was their mastery of the classical Arabic language and its poetic and literary tradition. In the same way that nowadays one can go higher in business or public administration, or education with an advanced degree, mastery of formal Arabic and of the scholarship, poetry, and courtly literature in Arabic was the key to advancement. The ability to write an eloquent letter in rhyming prose or to be able to extemporize in verse on any subject was the mark of an adib, a literato, and one of the core competencies of high level government officials.
It should hardly come as a surprise, then, that such men would think to imitate this style of Arabic poetry in their own liturgical language in Hebrew. After all, if they were important enough to help run the government and the army, their literary tradition should reflect this level of prestige, and the way to do so was to write in Hebrew as if it were Arabic. What did this mean? Was there no poetic tradition in Hebrew? Why this wholesale adoption of Arabic poetics?

There was a tradition of liturgical poetry in Hebrew, but it was increasingly irrelevant to the poetic tastes of the day. Arabic poetry, with its long legacy that predated Islam, had a vast repertoire of desert-based imagery and rhetorical figures, of clichés that poets recast and reinvented constantly, always making references, whether reverent or ironic, or downright parodical, of poets of past generations. It was a long, very complex, and very serious game, if you will. Translating this game into Hebrew was a natural extension of the literary culture in which they moved.

What they did not have at their disposal was a tradition of profane, or non-religious poetry. The topics, the imagery, the clichés, the poetic vocabulary of love, war, praise of great deeds and ridicule of the rival, all of these poetic conceits they borrowed from the Arabic tradition. The language they used to do this was the Hebrew of the Bible. The result was a kind of mosaic by which they used words and whole phrases lifted directly out of the Hebrew Bible to give voice to images and metaphors drawn from Arabic tradition. One way to look at this is that it became a kind of contest between Hebrew and Arabic to see which was the most vibrant, most authoritative language. If Arabic poetry drew some of its cultural authority for being written in the language of the Qur’an, then Hebrew poetry drew its authority from the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible. Eventually Hebrew poets began to give voice to this rivalry in debate poems and essays that touted Hebrew’s superiority over Arabic, much as Arab poets had once written on Arabic’s superiority over other languages spoken by non-Arab Muslims such as Persians. This discourse has its beginning in the eleventh century, when Moses ibn Ezra explains that Hebrew takes Arabic as its model:

Over time Hebrew poets became more militant, almost nationalist in their arguments, so that by the beginning of the twelfth century, when Arabic was on the decline as a literary language in the parts of al-Andalus, such as Toledo, that had since been conquered by Christians, poets now championed Hebrew as superior to Arabic. Judah al-Harizi, a writer from Toledo who lived in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, wrote the following:

They have enslaved the tongue of the Israelites to the tongue of Kedar [i.e., Arabic] and they said: ‘come let us sell her to the Ishmaelites.’ And they said to her: ‘Bow down, that we may go over.’ And they took her and cast her into the pit until she perished among them. And the tongue of Kedar blackened her, and like a lion, tore her. An evil beast devoured her. All of them spurned the Hebrew tongue and made love to the tongue of Hagar. (al-Harizi 32)

The irony is that these proclamations of the superiority of Hebrew, which were probably more like literary exercises than serious manifestos of linguistic policy, were couched in a register of Hebrew that owed everything except for the words themselves to Arabic. As I said earlier, these compositions were like mosaics in which the poets constructed the images and poetric conceits of Arabic using tiles cut from the Hebrew Bible. Later writers used the metaphor shibbutz to describe this style, meaning inlay, just as a precious gem set in a gold setting is made from a different material but forms a part of the overall composition of the piece.

I’ll give you an example from a muwashshah by Abraham ibn Ezra (no relation, as far as we know, to Moses ibn Ezra) who wrote in the twelfth century. The bold text shows the direct quote from the Biblical Hebrew. The final couplet in italics is a kharja in colloquial Andalusi Arabic, which contrasts sharply with the Biblical Hebrew of the rest of the composition:

The choice honey from your lips is sweet;
It is God’s work, unblemished.

Your breath smells like apples.

My beloved, where have you eaten the apple?
Come and say to me: ‘Ahhhh’
(Ibn Ezra 90)

This is a direct quote from the Biblical Shir ha-Shirim, or Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon, where the lover describes his beloved. In the literal sense of the Biblical text, the poetic voice describes the body of the beloved in a series of agricultural metaphors that suggest fertility and echo the idyllic setting of the love encounter.

I said: ‘I will climb up into the palm-tree,
I will take hold of the branches;
And your breasts are as clusters of grapes,
Your breath smells like apples (Song of Songs 7:9)

The effect is a kind of layering, an ironic juxtaposition of the original Biblical context and the Andalusi Hebrew poetry and adaptation of Arabic poetics. The poets deployed the ancient biblical language in a poetic setting that was purely Andalusi and contemporary and, it should be stressed, not always devotional or pious. Of course one might argue that the Song of Songs itself is not a particularly pious text as far as the Biblical canon goes. Later interpreters of the song read it as an allegory for the relationship between the Jewish people and God, but it was originally probably just a very successful love poem at the court of Solomon or David, not unlike an Andalusi qasida or ode, with an amorous theme, that for its popularity came to be included in the biblical canon and pressed into service as a devotional allegory.

In Menocal’s controversial thesis about the origins of troubadour poetry she proposes that this style of Andalusi lyric poetry made its way north across the Pyrenees and served as the inspiration for the first courtly lyric poetry in the Romance languages, and by extension the first “literature” in the Romance languages.

The story is pretty straightforward. In 1064 Sancho Ramírez of Aragon enlisted the help of a number of foreign noblemen from north of the Pyrenees in the siege of Barbastro, which then belonged to al-Muzaffar, the King of Lleida, now part of Catalonia. The campaign was preached by Pope Alexander II as a kind of proto-crusade, for the First Crusade to the East was not launched until 1096. Since the 1060s the Vatican had run a series of test campaigns in Spain. Popes issued bulls, or official documents that guaranteed remission of sins to all those who participated in sanctioned military actions against non-Christian enemies. So in a way, Spain was a kind of a test ground for the Crusades, and Barbastro was an important one of these trial runs.

With the aid of the Popes, Christian Iberian rulers could count on reinforcement troops who came to their aid not only for the promise of booty or future reciprocation, but also for spiritual gain and for expedited access to heaven. However, there was nothing wrong with learning some new songs along the way, apparently, for William the eighth of Acquitaine, who provided the largest contingent of foreign troops in the campaign, received as part of the spoils a troop Andalusi qiyan, women educated in the poetic and musical styles of the court. These qiyan were more like music professors than slaves forced to sing in a choir. They brought with them to Acquitaine the instruments, music theory, techniques, and reptertoire of the Andalusi musical and poetic traditions. Each of them had memorized thousands of compositions of Andalusi poets. This amounted to an “Andalusi” invasion in the music scene of Southern France. As Menocal points out, the young William the Ninth of Acquitaine grew up with these Andalusi qiyan as the house band, or the court musicians of his father William the Eighth of Acquitaine. Young William IX was the man who would become known as the first troubadour, the first artist to compose and perform courtly lyric verse in the vernacular as opposed to Latin. This was a big deal – just as big a deal as when the first Andalusi poets started singing songs in vernacular Arabic and Romance at court in the tenth century.

So why was this thesis so controversial? Some literary critics had since the nineteenth century suggested that Troubadour poetry has its origins at least partly in the courtly traditions of al-Andalus, which was offensive to those who held the idea of a “pure” French literary tradition close to their hearts. And we must remember, the nineteenth century was the time when most of our ideas about nationhood and nationalism were formed. This was time time of great linguistic homogenization, when public schools began to teach a national language, a national culture, a national ethos. This is the time of various pseudo-scientific approaches to ethnic identity, of phrenology, of theories of biological ethnic identity the type of which eventually gave us Nazi Aryanism. One’s national language was an essential part of one’s sense of national identity, an identity that was said to be carried in the blood, an identity that was biological fact. In this environment, to suggest that the foundational forms of French poetic tradition were an import from Spain, and ultimately from Africa, was nothing less than an affront to national honor.

But it gets worse. In 1948 a researcher named Samuel Stern made a remarkable discovery. He was examining some manuscripts of Andalusi Hebrew muwashshahat such as those we have seen and came across some very cryptic verses of which he could not get a clean reading either in Hebrew or in Arabic, meaning that the letters did not appear to add up to words that made sense either in Hebrew or in Arabic.

Andalusi Romance kharja in Hebrew mansucript

Stern was trained in both Semitic and Romance languages and he eventually put it together that these verses were written in Hebrew characters but that the language they represented was not Hebrew, not Classical Arabic or colloquial Andalusi Arabic, but another language entirely —Andalusi Romance, the dialect of Romance spoken in al-Andalus:

Des kand meu Cidello benid
ton bona al-bishaara
com ray de shol yeshed
fi waad al-hijaara

When my Cidello arrives,
What glad tidings!
Like a ray of sun he comes out
in Guadalajara

This meant that the first courtly poetry written in a Romance language was not the French troubadour poetry, but the, well what was it exactly? The popular Andalusi ditties remixed by classical Arabic and Hebrew poets? The sound bites of popular tunes preserved in longer, learned compositions?

Whatever you chose to call it, it meant that Spain, in 1948, could now (if they chose to, which is another matter entirely) boast the first written lyric of Romance tradition! Spain, which had been invaded by Napolean, Spain which had always, in the European context, been the African red-headed stepchild south of the Pyrenees. Spain, which even had its own term for someone who regarded French culture as more prestigious than one’s own: “afrancesado,” roughly “frenchified.” Yes, Spain was now the bearer of the first, the original, the most authentic, the oldest something in Europe.

But there was still that annoying detail of the Hebrew and Arabic poetry that allowed Romance poetry to enter the literary arena. Hmm. In an age of pure literary histories this was problematic. But luckily there was a simple solution. The kharjat could simply be studied as a case of Romance resistance to Semitic hegemony, the Romance flower pushing up through the Semitic pavement, evidence of the creative spirit not of the innovative Arabic and Hebrew poets who incorporated the popular Romance ditties, but of the indomitable spirit of the Latin people whose poetic ingenuity shone through and entranced even their swarthy, foreign oppressors.

For the Spanish critic concerned with maintaining the integrity of Spanish as a national language, the Romance kharjat of the Andalusi muwashshahat were evidence both of the enduring Hispanic spirit, as well as the primacy of Hispano-Romance over Franco-Romance in written lyric tradition. Eventually, editors of textbooks sidestepped the issue entirely, rendering cleaned up, de-Arabicized versions of the kharjat (rendered jarchas in Spanish), in total isolation from the Arabic and Hebrew muwashshahat of which they formed an integral part. Nearly every textbook of Spanish literature includes the Romance kharjat as the first example of Spanish literature, but not a single one includes the Hebrew and Arbabic poems from which the kharjat are mined. It is as if the Hebrew and Arabic compositions were a seed case providing nutrition to the kernel of the kharjat, keeping it alive until the day that it might sprout in the fertile black earth of modern European nationalism.

This tension between Spain’s Christian European identity and historic Muslim, Arab, and Jewish legacies has a very long history. Menocal writes at length on the journey of the Cluniac Abbot Peter the Venerable to Spain in order to produce a reliable Latin translation of the Qur’an. This trip, which Peter undertook in the middle of the twelfth century, at the height of the crusading movement both in the Peninsula and in the Eastern Mediterranean, had another purpose. The Cluniacs, a French-based religious order, were carving out new territory south of the Pyrenees. The establishment of Cluniac monasteries, and in particular the appointment of Cluniac and other non-Hispanic churchmen to highly placed positions in the Spanish church was part of a program to minimize the influence of Mozarabic Christians in the Spanish church.

As you have read, Christianity thrived in al-Andalus during the centuries of Muslim political dominance, and Hispanic Christians over time had developed their own rite and liturgy, which came to known as the Mozarabic rite. “Mozarab” is a word derived from the Arabic musta’rib, or one-who-has-become-arabized. It was used to refer to the Hispanic Christians who has become acculturated to the dominant culture of al-Andalus, adopting Andalusi Arabic as their spoken and Classical Arabic as their written languages. These Andalusi Christians were viewed as somewhat problematic by the Church hierarchy, once the north of the Iberian peninsula was reincorporated into Western Christendom. They were too, different, too Arabic, and the Vatican encouraged efforts to minimize their influence in the Church in Christian Iberia. This was a difficult proposal. In Toledo, a city of great commercial, spiritual, and political importance, and the former capital of Visigothic Christian Spain, the Mozarabic elites dominated the Church.

In the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, Western Christendom was on the move. With the enthusiastic approval of the Popes, Western knights had run several campaigns of crusade in Jerusalem, Syria, and even came to topple Christian Constantinople and install their own French Byzantine Emperor in place of the Greek, Christian Emperor there. By this time the tentative project of Crusade in Iberia had become a full blown holy war, and by the middle of the twelfth century Christian kings such as Jaume the First of Aragon spoke of their military struggle against al-Andalus in terms of Holy War, and making no bones about it.

In this context, the Mozarabic church and the Andalusi culture it represented looked a little bit too much like the enemy, and the same Popes who declared Byzantine Greek Christians to be heretics —and therefore totally legitimate military targets— turned their sights on the Mozarabic church elite in Spain. We should remember that two of the most important Christian kings in Spain during the thirteenth century were made saints for their military exploits against Islam. Louis IX, who nearly bankrupted his royal treasury financing a failed crusade and buying relics stolen from the Byzantine church by the crusaders, was sainted only two years after his death. Fernando III of Castile-Leon, who conquered Seville and Cordoba, at the time the two most populous and sophisticated cities in the Iberian peninsula, had to wait until the seventeenth century for sainthood but was revered as a holy warrior during his own lifetime.

By the mid-fourteenth century the Mozarab elites of Toledo were effectively acculturated, and their use of Arabic was limited to the most formulaic of legal documents. The population had probably been fully hispanized by the close of the thirteenth century in any event. Though large number of Muslims remained in Christian kingdoms until well into the sixteenth century, outside of the tributary kingdom of Granada Arabic as a literary language has more or less breathed its last by the close of the fourteenth century. As you well know, after sending Columbus westward Isabel and Ferdinand expelled the Jews from their kingdoms, and over a century later Philip the second would do the same with the descendants of the Andalusi Muslims who had been forcibly converted in the beginning of the sixteenth century.

Yet try as they might, Christian Iberians were never able to reconcile itself to its Semitic heritage. Some, like the Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo, argue that this cultural closing would be the most significant factor in Spain’s economic and intellectual backwardness in the European context, and that only now in the age of official multiculturalism ushered in by the policies of the European Union can Spain come forward to claim its rightful role as the historical multicultural example for neighbor countries such as France and Italy who are struggling to articulate national cultures that are open to European Islam, to European Africanness and other forms of cultural difference. Scholars like Menocal have striven to interpret the past in ways that can be productive for the future, to find even in conflictive moments the pearls of cultural exchange and collaboration, of shared enterprise and shared values. These are the examples that can inspire policy and practice, that actually can affect the way we govern and are governed, and the way we live our lives every day.

 

Works cited

  • al-Harizi, Judah. The Takhkemoni. Trans. Victor Reichert. Jerusalem: Raphael Haim Cohen, 1965. Print.
  • Ibn Ezra, Abraham ben Meïr. Twilight of a Golden Age: Selected Poems of Abraham Ibn Ezra. Trans. Leon Weinberger. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997. Print.
  • Menocal, María Rosa. The Ornament of the World. Boston: Little Brown, 2002. Print.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dem bones

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

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

Get a good one

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

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

Bibliography

  • Brownlee, Marina. “Romance at the Crossroads: Medieval Spanish Paradigms and Cervantine Revisions.” The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 253–266. Print.
  • Burke, James. “Names and the Significance of Etymology in the Libro del caballero Zifar.” Romanic Review 59 (1968): 161–173. Print.
  • Corriente, Federico. A Dictionary of Andalusi Arabic. Leiden: Brill, 1997. Print.
  • Forey, A. J. “The Order of Mountjoy.” Speculum 46.2 (1971): 250–266. Print.
  • González, Cristina. “El cavallero Zifar” y el reino lejano. Madrid, España: Editorial Gredos, 1984. Print.
  • —, 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.
  • O’Callaghan, Joseph F. Reconquest and Crusade in Medieval Spain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Print.
  • Walker, Roger M. Tradition and Technique in El Libro Del Cavallero Zifar. London: Tamesis Books, 1974. Print.

This post was written in conjunction with a paper I’m giving titled  “El Libro del Cavallero Zifar: Performing ‘Spanishness’ in the Mediterranean Context at the 2013 Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association (Vancouver, WA), 10 October 2013. Thanks to Prof. Anthony Cárdenas for organizing the session.

Re-rethinking the Survey Course: back to the commercial textbook

Spanish 316 is a panoramic survey of Peninsular Spanish literature of the premodern period (1100-1600). It is a mainstay of my teaching practice; I usually teach it about 3 times per year. It is a requirement for the Spanish major at the University of Oregon and satisfies the literature requirement for the Spanish minor. It is taught in two lectures weekly with a discussion section at the end of the week covering both lectures. In addition to the instructor of record there is a GTF (Graduate Teaching Fellow) who is responsible for the discussion sections. It is taught in Spanish and is a fairly large format for our department; enrollment is capped at 70 students.

Here are a few relevant documents: [course listing] [syllabus] [final exam rubric]

I’ve written about the survey course in a previous post (“Rethinking the Survey Course”) in which I argued for an issues-based approach mixing short selections from pedagogical editions and non-literary primary sources (treatises, chronicles, etc). In this iteration I am going back to a more conventional model and am basing my course on the popular textbook Voces de España. In line with our recent reorganization of our survey courses (texts and contexts), I am putting the emphasis on helping students make the connection between literary practice and historical context. That is, my mission is to help them understand why a given formal or thematic innovation is significant in its literary historical and broader historical context. As in a communicative language class, the emphasis is on demonstrating/articulating one’s readings of the primary texts through close textual analysis.

For this class I have reversed my position on avoiding commercial textbooks and adopted Voces de España as the text. After teaching Spanish 316 for many years using my own materials (almost all free of copyright) I decided that the overall coherence and quality of the materials was lacking, and that a commercial textbook, for its shortcomings (price, limited selection of readings), would solve many of the problems I had been facing in terms of editorial consistency, pagination, and in particular the consistency of textual glosses, introductory essays, and reading/thematic questions. Voces in my opinion is superior to the other choices in that it has a more diverse range of readings (female authors, essays, etc) and fairly well-thought out questions for prereading, comprehension, analysis, and extended writing assignments. It is still far from ideal in teaching multicultural Iberia in that it does not contain readings originally written in many of the literary languages of the Iberian Peninsula: Catalan, Aragonese, Galician-Portuguese, Arabic, Latin, or Hebrew. Details, details. I won’t address the question of the linguistic and/or cultural diversity of medieval Iberia and its implications for teaching in Castilian at the undergraduate level here, but it is definitely a conversation worth having.

In order to leverage the advantages of such a textbook, and in an effort to draw a very clear connection between content, class activities, and assessments, I decided to adopt the pedagogical materials in Voces outright. The daily quizzes are the preguntas de comprensión, the prereading discussion is based on the preguntas de prelectura, and the exam questions are the preguntas analíticas. There is no question whatsoever as to what will be on the quizzes, on the exams, or how what we are doing in class will relate to the midterm or final exam.

I’ve structured the lectures and discussion sections as follows: At the end of the prior lecture we will dedicate a few minutes to the preguntas de prelectura in anticipation of next class’s text. Students will bring a 3×5” index card to each class session and will write a short response to the pregunta de prelectura that will serve as a basis for small group discussion of the pregunta and then, once they hand it in, as a record of their attendance and participation for the class.

Before the start of the following lecture, students are required to log onto Blackboard and complete a quiz on the lecture’s reading that consists of 4 questions drawn randomly from the preguntas de comprensión associated with the reading. This way, students are able to prepare all of the questions in advance and answer the 4 questions based on their level preparation.

Lectures are devoted to explaining the historical context of the readings and attempting to draw connections between the primary text and the historical context. Lectures will be structured as follows:

  • introduction to historical context
  • close reading of key passages
  • explanation of relationship between context and text
  • broader significance of text
  • literary historical context: links to other texts in class
  • prereading for next text

Discussion section:

As outlined in the syllabus, discussion section should be spent reviewing students’ preliminary answers to the preguntas de análisis (which will serve as the questions for the midterm and the final exams) and doing exercises to help them develop their critical reading and writing skills so they will perform well on the midterm and final exams. All exercises conducted in section should be clearly related to improving their performance on the exams and should be based in the rubric for the final exam.

Some suggested activities and exercises for discussion section:

  • Spend a few moments discussing what you will be doing in the section and why; what is the purpose of the exercises and what do you hope to accomplish with them.
  • Practice critical reading strategies (focusing the question, what kind of evidence am I looking for, etc)
  • Identify key vocabulary in texts (verbs, adjectives, etc)
  • Identify key rhetorical figures in texts
  • Practice writing topic sentences that contextualize the evidence you are about to present
  • Practice writing sentences that incorporate textual evidence
  • Practice adapting grammar of citations to fit sentence grammar
  • Practice identifying key elements of historical contexts in introductory essays and identifying textual evidence that reflects these elements

What about you? How does this course compare with your experience teaching (or taking) a survey course in premodern Spanish literature? I look forward to your comments.

Teaching medieval literature to undergraduates in the original version: back to the philology seminar model

Libro del caballero Zifar, f32r.º del Manuscrito de París (ms. espagnol 36 (Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

Medievalists working in modern languages face a happy dilemma: we sometimes have the privilege of teaching works in our own subfield to a captive audience of language majors who need to take upper-division courses in the target language in order to complete their degrees. In some rare cases these students are actually required to take courses on premodern works. On paper this is a wonderful opportunity to share with our students the same works that got us all fired up about medieval literature in the first place.

But there is a problem: medieval vernaculars are difficult, and students may come to the classroom with facile but entrenched preconceptions about the difficulty, irrelevance, and strangeness of medieval texts, even those in modernized versions or in English translations.

One approach to this problem is to preempt these preconceptions by working to demonstrate the relevance of medieval texts, their value for understanding current-day issues and debates (I discussed this approach in survey courses in a previous post). We can address the question of difficulty by excerpting, modernizing, translating the texts in question. Break them down into digestible bites so the students will not feel overwhelmed or linguistically incompetent.

a cucharadiiiiitaaaaaas

This approach comes with a price: if we teach modernized versions, our students get little exposure to the linguistic reality of the culture we are teaching them. Their understanding of the target language is less diverse, less historically informed. Learning to read medieval registers of a vernacular language is a window onto linguistic diversity, one that persists in modern non-normative dialects. Medieval registers of modern languages also reveal commonalities with other modern national languages that have since been repressed.

There are other reasons to teach original versions of medieval texts. There is a satisfaction that comes with overcoming the uncomfortable, the challenging, with rendering the strange familiar through sheer effort. Students of languages are not strangers to this process, but by the time they have achieved sufficient proficiency in the target language in question, having to face a steep linguistic curve as advanced upperclassmen may seem like an ambush: I wanted to study Spanish literature; I didn’t sign up for…this?

This fall I will be teaching an upper-level seminar in my field, and I have chosen to return to a pedagogical model we all know well: the philology seminar. Instead of teaching a series of short excerpts or modernizations of texts, I will teach the whole of the original Libro del cavallero Zifar in ten weeks, in chunks of some twenty pages per class session. We will begin with an introduction to medieval Castilian phonology, morphology, orthography, and lexicon. Students will write critical commentaries and modernizations of weekly selections. And yes, they will write a term-end literary critical essay.

I believe the students will suffer some. They have not ever been asked to do this before. They have read very very little, if any, medieval Castilian. At best they have read very short excerpts of Gonzalo de Berceo or Juan Ruiz, usually with accompanying modernizations or English translations. There will be blood.

Petrus de Capua. Distinctiones Theologicae. England, 13th.

The first weeks will likely be rough going. But I hope they will gain something as well. I am hoping they will ramp up, and that the sixth or seventh reading assignments will go down far easier than the first and second. They will have the opportunity to tackle the whole book, and work through that sense of strangeness they often bring to medieval language.

What about you? What has your experience been in teaching entire medieval works in original versions to undergraduate students of modern languages?
Please feel free to leave a comment below.

 

 

 

 

 

Translation in Diaspora: Historia de las Indias in Hebrew

[For the revised and expanded version of this post, see “Translation in Diaspora: Sephardic Spanish-Hebrew Translations in the Sixteenth Century.” A Comparative History of Literatures in the Iberian Peninsula. Ed. César Domínguez & María José Vega. Vol. 2. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2017. 351-63. https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:10227/]

 In two previous posts I wrote about the cultural context and actual translation of the Spanish chivalric novel Amadís de Gaula (Zaragoza, 1507) into Hebrew made by Sephardic physician and translator Jacob Algaba (Constantinople, 1550). Here I would like to expand my discussion of translation from Spanish to Hebrew made in the sixteenth century to include another book well-known to students of Spanish literature: Joseph Hakohen’s 1557 translation of Francisco López de Gómara’s Historia General de las Indias (Zaragoza, 1552).

Here they come

When we read these translations as examples of Sephardic diasporic cultural production, the Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula,  we begin to see a different picture. Their translators placed these works in the service of a Jewish literary culture, one whose values were often at odds with those of the original authors and readers of the Spanish originals. At the same time, the Sepharadim were deeply identified with Iberian vernacular culture and history, and these translations were a form of cultural capital upon which they traded in the broader Jewish context of Western Christendom and the Ottoman Empire.

Diaspora

Diaspora is a Greek word that describes the broad scattering of a people as if they were seeds scattered across several furrows in a field. In its original usage it described the colonization of people dispersing from metropolis to colonies in order to reproduce Imperial authority in conquered lands. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible it came to mean the dispersion of the Jews from Zion throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East. Since then it has come to be applied to range of historical scatterings: African, Indian, Chinese, Armenian, and others. In other posts I’ve written on how current ideas about non-Jewish diasporas can be helpful for thinking about Jewish diaspora, and in particular the Sephardic ‘double diaspora’ from Zion and from Sefarad. [see previous post on double diaspora]

Translation

Diasporic populations are by nature multilingual. They typically use one or more diasporic languages brought from the homeland in addition to one or more languages of the hostland. It follows that translation across these languages would be an important part of their cultural life.

López de Gómara’s notice to his translators

Diaspora is often presented as an alternative to the idea of national languages and literatures (Tölölyan, “Transnational” 8). Lawrence Venuti, an expert on translation in literature, writes that translation can be part of a nationalist cultural agenda:

Foreign texts are chosen because they fall into particular genres and address particular themes while excluding other genres and themes that are seen as unimportant for the formation of a national identity; translation strategies draw on particular dialects, registers, and styles while excluding others that are also in use; and translators target particular audiences with their work, excluding other constituencies. (“Local 189-90)

Although diasporic and national cultures are different, in both cases translation can serve similar purposes. Sephardic Spanish-to-Hebrew translations bring texts over from a language of national and imperial culture into one of a diasporic language of learning. They reauthorize the works for consumption by the broader, non-Sephardic Jewish community, so their motives for translation were not to make the works in question intelligible to themselves, but rather to represent some version of Spanish or Sephardic culture to the broader Jewish world.

In these translations, we see a conflicting desires at work: on the one hand our translators sought to bring Spanish literature to a broader Jewish audience. In this they were banking on the prestige of Spain as a world power, as a source of great literature, and to a certain extent they identified with Spain’s prestige. But at the same time, their relationship with Spain was conflicted: it was at once their ancestral homeland and the country whose kings had brutally rejected and ejected them. Hakohen’s translation of López de Gómara’s account of the conquest of the Americas demonstrates this conflict in some interesting ways, as we are about to find out.

Hakohen’s Historia de las Indias

Francisco López de Gómara, secretary and chaplain to Hernán Cortés in Seville, published his second-hand account of the conquest of the Indies in Zaragoza in 1552. It was later decried as inaccurate and overly rosy in its portrayal of the Spanish colonial enterprise, and particularly in its lionization of Cortés himself. Such objections notwithstanding, it provided readers with a detailed —if inaccurate— account of the geographic, political, and social realities of New Spain, by any measure an exciting and relevant topic of discussion in Spain and elsewhere.

The first half of the sixteenth century saw a surge in Jewish historiography. Jewish writers began to write chronicles and histories that recorded events of importance to Jewish communities, the succession of gentile kings, wars, calumnies, expulsions, and so forth.  While some historians of Jewish culture have explained this apparently sudden interest in historiography as a reaction to the trauma of the expulsions from Spain and from various Italian city states, it was more likely simply a sign of the times (Bonfil, “Golden”). In the age of print, exploration, and complex international trade networks, global politics and history was now part of the dossier of a good Jewish courtier or businessman.

Joseph Hakohen was an Italian Jew of Sephardic background and author of a number of secular histories in Hebrew (León Tello, “Introducción” 25-35). In the introduction to his Chronicles of the Kings of France and the Kings of the House of the Ottoman Turk, he writes that it is good to learn of the deeds of great kings against the Jews so that, as he writes in his introduction to his “that the remembrance thereof not pass away from among the Jews; and the memory of our wrongs shall not come to an end” (Hakohen, Chronicles 1: xx). But the Hebrew histories of the sixteenth century were more than updated lamentations of Jewish suffering; they were guidebooks to a globalizing world that negotiated between imperial contexts. This increased interest in international affairs should come as no surprise given Jewish involvement in diplomacy and international trade.

We must keep in mind that Hakohen’s Historia de las Indias appeared in 1557, five years after Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas’ Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (1552) discredited López de Gómara’s history as a blatant fabrication and puff piece meant to validate Spanish conquest in the New World. Hakohen’s treatment of Gómara’s work is likewise highly critical. Why translate a work only to criticize and undermine it all the while? Moshe Lazar, the modern editor of Hakohen’s translation, notes that Hakohen embeds a critique of the Spanish colonial project similar to that voiced by Las Casas. Hakohen editorializes liberally in his translation of the events narrated by López de Gómara, freely glossing and emending López de Gómara’s text to bring it in line with his own values and those of his audience.

Coat of arms given to Columbus by the Catholic Monarchs

In one striking example, López de Gómara recounts the triumphant return of Christopher Columbus to the court of the Catholic Monarchs, where he is given a hero’s welcome. Gómara describes the coat of arms presented to the Genoese navigator, which he inscribes with a couplet celebrating his own achievements:

Puso Christoual Colon al rededor del escudo de armas, que le concedieron, esta letra:

Por Castilla, y por Leon.
Nueuo mundo hallo Colon. (López de Gómara, Historia 22)

Christopher Columbus put this inscription around the coat of arms that they gave him:

For Castile, and for Leon.
Columbus found a new world.

Hakohen, somewhat more critical of Columbus’ project, glosses the couplet, first reproducing it in Spanish (with a slight variant) in Hebrew letters, followed by a poem of his own composition:

Por Castilla y por León
Medio el mundo halló Colón

For Castille and for Leon
Columbus found half of the world

And I, Joseph Hakohen, composed the following, saying:

For Castilla, and also for Leon
Colon found a new world
But with the passage of the sun through the sky,
they crossed into the Valley of Ayalon (Joshua 10:12-13)
There he earned eternal fame
For there he also found a colony
Thus many nations were humbled
In great reproach, contempt and dishonor,
For this man crossed there,
to become the mistletoe [i.e. a parasite] to their oak.

Elsewhere he frankly contradicts López de Gómara’s version of events, offering a counter history to the hegemonic narrative of the Spanish original. For example, López de Gómara’s chapter on syphillis is plainly titled “Que las bubas vinieron de las Indias,” or ‘syphillis came from the Indies.’ (Historia 37-38).

Smallpox devastating the Nahuatl, from the Florentine Codex c.1585.

He explains that Spanish conquistadors contracted syphillis by having sex with indigenous women from the island of Hispaniola, then returned to Spain. Subsequently they traveled to Naples to fight the French, where they infected Italian women with the disease:

Los de aquesta ysla Española son todos bubosos. Y como los Españoles dormian con las Indias hinchieronse luego de bubas, enfermedad pegajosisima, y que atormenta con rezios dolores. Sintiendose atormentar y no mejorando, se boluieron muchos dellos a España por sanar, y otros a negocios, los quales pegaron su encubierta dolencia a muchas mugeres cortesanas, y ellas a muchos hombres, que passaron a Italia a la guerra de Napoles en fauor del rey don Fernando, el segundo, contra Franceses, y pegaron alla aquel su mal. (Historia 36-37)

The inhabitants of that island Hispaniola are all syphillitic. And as the Spanish slept with the Indian women they then became infected with syphillis, that most contagious disease that torments one with fierce pains. Feeling afflicted and not improving, many went back to Spain to recover, and others to conduct business, by which they infected many courtesan ladies who in turn infected many men who went over to Italy to the War of Naples on the side of King Fernando II, against the French, and there they spread their disease.

Without editorializing, Hakohen turns López de Gómara’s narrative on its head, substituting a very different epidemiology of the Columbian exchange that runs counter to López de Gómara’s official narrative. Hakohen’s chapter is titled “Syphillis is a French sickness, that the Spaniards brought from there, and they also brought the hordeolu (orzuelo, ‘stye’) illness.”[1] His version differs considerably from that of López de Gómara:

The Spaniards brought syphillis to Italy from the Indies when they went to Naples, in the year 1494. They slept with women, and French also slept with them, and the syphillis shone [first] in their foreheads and in time ate half of their flesh. . . . And the Spaniards also brought hordeolu (styes) and morbili (measles), which is called jidri in Arabic,[2] and smallpox, which the inhabitants of that land had never seen before that day; and many thousands of them died of those two illnesses. Their time of their [death] warrant had come upon them then. (Sefer ha-Indiah 30-31)

The constrast is dramatic. Hakohen reverses the trajectory of infection, returning the origin of the pestilence to Europe and backing up his version by adding details and citing medical authorities absent in the Spanish original. He is clearly at odds with López de Gómara, particularly as regards the morality of Spain’s colonial project.

 

This hostility to Spanish conquest is hardly unique to Hakohen. We have noted the well-known case of Las Casas. There were also a number of of Hakohen’s countrymen in Italy who took up their pens against Spain. The most prominent among these was Girolamo Benzoni, a Milanese whose bitter failures in his brief time in the new world engendered in him a vibrant hate of all things Spanish. Benzoni gives voice to this hatred unstintingly in his Historia del nuovo mundo, published in Venice in 1565, eight years after Hakohen finishes his translation of López de Gómara.

Unlike Benzoni, Hakohen’s relationship to the Spanish colonial enterprise is more complicated: he is describing a culture of which he is a part but from which he has been excluded. When Sephardic authors such as Hakohen write about Spain, or adapt works by Spanish authors, they are in a sense turning and re-turning toward Spain, but this orientation toward the diasporic homeland is the product of human history and not part of any divine plan. However, the strong attachment to Sepharad/Spain expressed by Sephardic writers intertwines and alternates with the desire (if not the actual project) of returning to Zion.

This contains material from a talk I gave at the Dept. of Spanish and Portuguese of the University of Colorado at Boulder on 1 November 2012. My thanks to the Department and to the Center for Humanities and Arts for their support.

I appreciate your feedback and comments. Feel free to leave a comment below or email me.

Works cited

  • Bonfil, Robert. “How Golden was the Age of the Renaissance in Jewish Historiography?” History and Theory 27.4 (1988): 78–102. Print.
  • Hakohen, Joseph. Sefer Divre Ha-yamim : Le-malkhe Tsarefat U-malkhe Bet Oṭoman ha-Tugar. Ed. David Arie Gros. Yerushalayim: Mosad Byaliḳ, 1955. Print.
  • —. Sefer ha-Indiʼah Ha-hadashah. Ed. Moshe Lazar. Lancaster, CA: Labyrinthos, 2002.
  • —. Sefer ʼEmeq Ha-bakha = The Vale of Tears : with the Chronicle of the Anonymous Corrector. 2nd ed. Ed. Karin Almbladh. Uppsala: Uppsala University, 1981. Print.
  • León Tello, Pilar. “Introducción.” El Valle Del Llanto (’Emeq ha-Bakha). Joseph Hakohen. Trans. Pilar Léon Tello. Barcelona: Riodpiedras, 1989. 9–35.
  • López de Gómara, Francisco. La historia general De las Indias y Nueuo Mundo con mas la conquista del Peru y de Mexico. Antwerp: Juan Steeliso, 1554.
  • Tölölyan, Khachig. “Rethinking Diaspora(s): Stateless Power in the Transnational Moment.” Diaspora 5.1 (1996): 3–36.
  • Tölölyan, Khachig. “The Contemporary Discourse of Diaspora Studies.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 27.3 (2007): n. pag. Web. 20 July 2011.

 


[1] Hakohen uses the Hebrew term holei ha-tavelei for the Spanish bubas.

[2] Jidri is Andalusi Arabic for smallpox. The Classical Arabic form is judari. It is interesting that Hakohen is familiar with the colloquial rather than learned form, which suggests that he learned it in discussion with an Arabic speaker, rather than from consulting an Arabic book or a Latin or Romance translation of an Arabic book.

Sephardic Literature after Las Navas de Tolosa: The Romance Turn in Jacob ben Elazar’s “Sahar and Kima”

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

This is the paper that I would have given today at the 47th International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalmazoo, Michigan, if the ticket from Eugene to Kalamazoo did not cost $900. Special thanks go to Prof Erik Ekman of Oklahoma State for organizing the panel “1212 Remembered: The Eight Hundreth Anniversary of Las Navas de Tolosa,” and for allowing me to lurk electronically via Skype from my office in Eugene. Thanks also to my co-panelists, Professor Barbara Boloix-Gallardo of Washington University and Prof. Jonathan Ray of Georgetown University. Feedback and comments are welcome via email.

 The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, as all of you know, is the cliché turning point of the balance of political power on the Iberian Peninsula between Christian and Muslim kingdoms. For Muslim political power, it was the beginning of the end, for Christians it was, or came to be understood retrospectively, as the point after which the total elimination of Muslim political power seemed imminent or at least possible. I’ll leave to the historians in the room the small detail that Granada continued to be a sovereign, if eventually tributary kingdom for some two hundred fifty years after Las Navas, and the even more problematic detail that Islam continued to be practiced in parts of Castile-Leon and Aragon for a full four hundred years after Las Navas.

But I am not going to speak about the battle itself, or even of the political context or related historical issues. Instead, I would like to use the literary production of Iberian Jews as a kind of lens through which to examine the cultural impact of the transition between Muslim and Christian rule in Castile, paying specific attention to how one Castilian writer of prose fiction in Hebrew bridged the Andalusi and Christian periods. The text in question, a collection of Hebrew tales by a man named Jacob ben Elazar, dates from the same decade as Las Navas de Tolosa, and is a bellweather for how Jewish literary culture reacted to regime change in Castile.

Ben Elazar’s Book of Tales (Sefer Ha-meshalim in Hebrew) is a collection of 10 short pieces of narrative.[1] In Ben Elazar’s tale “Sahar and Kima,” the author demonstrates his relationship to the literary culture of the dominant Christian society while simultaneously reflecting the Andalusi Hebrew literary tradition. In his manipulation of the literary conventions of the Hebrew maqama (rhyming prose narrative) he carves out new literary space to give voice to the concerns of a community in transition between Arabic-dominant and Romance-dominant host cultures.[2]

Ben Elazar is writing precisely when Castilian is still very much emergent as a literary language, when Gonzalo de Berceo —often named in literary histories as the first author to write in literary Castilian—writes his works of mester de clerecía (religious narrative poetry), and a full generation or two before the massive vernacularization project of Alfonso X.

In the context of Christian Castile, some of these new examples were bound to come from the literary practice of the Christian majority, notably the Romance-language poetry and prose that was written and read in the courts of Christian monarchs and nobles. Just as the Hebrew poets of the Jewish communities of al-Andalus succeeded in adapting Arabic poetics and literary mores for a Hebrew-speaking audience, Sephardic writers living in Christian Iberia drew on the literature of the Christian majority for inspiration. In the example we are about to explain, Ben Elazar’s adaptation of courtly romance is a diasporic literary strategy that draws both on the authority of Andalusi Hebrew literature and on the examples of the emergent Romance-language styles, including French chivalric romances, and troubadour poetry that were popular in Castile during the thirteenth century.

It is not particularly shocking in itself that a Sephardic writer would be imitating styles popular at court where he or his benefactor might have served. This was very much the case with Jewish writers in al-Andalus, who famously adapted Arabic poetics in their Hebrew verse over the course of the tenth to the twelfth centuries. In this case, however, Ben Elazar’s discourse of courtly love (for lack of a better term) appears some years before writers working in Castilian begin to bring over the world of the French Tristan, Arthur, and Lancelot into their own language. Ben Elazar’s Sahar and Kima is a very early example —perhaps the first example— of an authoctonous Iberian writer adapting Arthurian courtly discourse in an original composition.

Apart from scattered references to Arthurian material mentioned by trouabours during the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, the first Iberian narratives that bear significant Arthurian influence were those included in the Alfonsine histories, and these did not emerge until the mid- to late-thirteenth century, followed shortly thereafter by the book of Cavallero Cífar at the turn of the fourteenth. This means that Ben Elazar’s tale of Sahar and Kima would be one of the first Iberian texts to bear influence of chivalric courtly mores, some three quarters of a century before the first Castilian-language example. Reading Ben Elazar’s Hebrew text in the Romance language context gives us more data points to bring to our consideration of the development of Chivalric Romance in Spain. He introduces elements of the courtly attitudes and behaviors (as well as the physical surroundings and props) of the world of chivalric romance while substituting feats of poetic and rhetorical brilliance (the pen) for that of arms (the sword) as is the norm among heroes of French and Castilian chivalric novels. Jonathan Decter points up this distinction in his comparison between Ben Elazar’s book with the French and (considerably later) Castilian versions of the romance Floire et Blanchefloir. He concludes that “Ben Elazar does not create protagonists who embark upon chivalrous forest adventures or engage in tournaments to earn love and prestige. Yet his characters do embody the internal transformations charcteristic of Romance protagonists”.[3]

How does this synthesis between Arabic and French tradition play out in Ben Elazar’s text? Much of it has to do with the way in which he adapts the chivalric literary sensibility to the culture of the Sepharadim. If epic poetry such as the Cantar de Mio Cid or the Chanson de Roland tells the story of arms in service to feudal lord, the great innovation of chivalric romance was to press arms into the service of love. The feudal lord is displaced by the lady as the figure around which the action is oriented.

One might think that since Ben Elazar is using biblical Hebrew to tell his tale he might graft bits of Biblical feats of arms into the text to keep with the spirit of the genre. Maybe he would describe rhetorical heroics using the language of Biblical heroics, describing feats of arms in the same language the bible uses to describe the great military exploits of Samuel, Joshua, or even the against-all-odds battle between David and Goliath. He does not. The heroics of “Sahar and Kima” are courtly, but not chivalric. Since there is no Jewish class of warrior-nobles in Christian Iberia, the literature does not develop an inventory of imagery of the warrior hero. He is more indebted to the Arabic sense of rhetorical prowess featured in the medieval maqamat. While tenth- and eleventh-century Andalusi Hebrew poets —most notably the Granadan general Samuel Hanagid ibn Nagrela— wrote war poetry, the exemplary values of the poetry of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries are poetic excellence and religious piety. For Ben Elazar’s audience, the criteria for heroic values do not include feats of arms. Knights appear very infrequently in works by Sephardic and other Jewish authors, and when they do it is through translation from other languages or when the knight is a subject of parody. There is no autochtonous chivalric hero in Hebrew literature. Arms as a category of excellence is often replaced by letters, whether secular or sacred.

Let’s see for ourselves how this plays out in the text. The story begins with the young nobleman Sahar embarking from the port of Jaffa to Syria. There is a storm, and a shipwreck,[4] and our hero washes up on the shores of the land of Tsovah, perhaps Aleppo, but as in chivalric romance, the geography is fuzzy, fantastic, sort of irrelevant. He wanders into the city, where are all the girls and women of the place are stunned by his beauty. He stumbles into the palace, mistaking it for a synagogue, and is immediately detained and tied up by a pair of Ethiopian guards. When he recites an extemporaneous poem in protest, the crowd is floored by his poetic skill, and he is released. Kima hears this poem and falls in love with him, tossing him an apple inscribed with a poem and blowing him a kiss. Sahar is escorted out of the court and tossed into the street, forlorn and pining for Kima. She sends a servant with a letter professing her love for him. The servant leads him back to the palace where Sahar recites more poems of his love for Kima. After making him pass through a series of tests of his resolve and poetic prowess, Kima reveals herself to him, reproaching him for speaking openly of their love. There ensues a series of sung and written poetic exchanges, followed by a Bollywood-esque song and dance routine, and then a romantic all-nighter in the hortus conclusus of the palace garden. The couple is discovered by Kima’s father, the King, who threatens to kick Sahar out, but is so moved by laments of the young lovers that he agrees to allow them to marry. Shortly after the nuptials he dies of plague, conveniently passing his crown to Sahar and Kima, who live happily ever after — Vivieron felices y comieron perdices.[5]

What most distinguishes this narrative from other Hebrew (and Arabic) love stories of the middle ages is its particular brand of courtliness. It is the details of the behavior of the young lovers that really sets this story apart from its Hebrew analogues and places it closer to medieval Romances written in European vernaculars.

Not all of the details of the amores of the protagonists are specific to courtly love chez Capellanus. Much of the nuts and bolts of the amorous discourse is common to both Andalusi and Romance courtly traditions. Sahar falls in love with Kima from just hearing her voice.[6] He complains of her aloofness, constantly laments the mere possibility of being separated from her despite never really having been united with her. Ladies in waiting serve as go-betweens, carrying poetic messages between the lovers. Love letters and poems are not simply recited or written on paper. In one case Kima embroiders a poem to Sahar on a curtain behind which she hides from him.[7] And of course, the lovers complain of the impossibility of love and of the pain of separation.

However, there are many examples of amorous motifs and moves that are anomalous in Hebrew or and Arabic tradition and seem much more characteristic of vernacular courtly discourse. When Sahar sees Kima, he bows and kisses her hand.[8] He does this to avoid scandal in front of Kima’s ladies in waiting. I’ve never heard of anyone kissing anyone else’s hand in Hebrew. Her response to this advance is to wax lyrical about the value of chaste love, but she couches this idea in terms of class and in terms of an understood doctrine of courtly love. She explains to Sahar the ‘laws and customs of true lovers’ enforce chastity, while the sons of slaves yield to their passions. The narrator assures us that her words ennoble and edify Sahar, who then concedes to spend the entire night in the palace gardens with her, speaking of approved courtly topics but not actually touching physically.[9]

Kima repeatedly chastises Sahar to be chaste in his love for her. What is interesting about this is that she is not simply preoccupied with her honor, or with being haughty, which would be a perfectly recognizable posture for a courtly lover: la belle dame sans merci. No, Kima’s objection to physical love is on moral grounds. She explains that “to love with passion is a sin”[10] and does her best to stave off his physical advances. This manifestation of troubadouresque chaste love is particular to the vernacular literary tradition of Western Europe, and has no exact analogue in Arabic. Though the figure of the suffering, chaste lover is found in the verses of the so-called Udhri (‘pure’) poets,[11] and Ibn Hazm himself includes a chapter on “Submission” in The Dove’s Neck-Ring, the nature of Sahar’s devotions to Kima are more suggestive of the French Arthurian romances.

Ben Elazar is doing things here that no other Hebrew author in Latin Christendom has done. He is adopting the local conventions for representing idealized heterosexual love and blending these sensibilities with conventions, ideologies, and habits of expression drawn from the Andalusi and Biblical poetic traditions.[12]

In light of all this, if we compare “Sahar and Kima” to the Hebrew tradition alone, Ben Elazar looks like an outlier, a radical innovator. But when we look at him next to his colleagues writing in Romance, he looks like a writer who is simply up to date and writing the way people write in France and Spain at this time.  It is noteworthy that Ben Elazar would be writing something that looks like courtly romance in the early thirteenth century in Toledo, when such courtly subjects do not appear in Castilian until the turn of the fourteenth century.[13]

In order to properly situate “Sahar and Kima” in the discussion of Romance we need to distinguish the Courtly from the Chivalric. In his definition of Chivalric Romance, Cesar Segre emphasizes the relation of the characters to the courtly setting,[14] and while there is no doubt that Jews were players on the courtly scene, and occasionally went to war, there is relatively little of the Chivalric in the medieval Jewish experience.

Conclusion

In “Sahar and Kima,” the courtly chivalric ideal is displaced by a scholarly, but still courtly, ideal. While critics tend to characterize the tension in Romance between the clerkly and the knightly,[15] this dichotomy is obviated in the Jewish context. This stands to reason when we think about the social context of Jewish writers and readers in comparison to that of their Christian counterparts. The patrons of most Hebrew authors are not nobles, but notables, courtiers whose fortunes hinged on royal patronage and business affairs, but not feats of arms. We have in “Sahar and Kima,” a case of courtly ideals refracted through a diasporic experience, where courtly heroics are framed in terms of excellence with the pen, as opposed to the sword.[16] “Sahar and Kima” gives us an example of the practice of courtly romance in Castile well before the Castilan Crónica de Flores y Blancaflor intercalated in the Alfonsine Primera Crónica General, and some seventy years before the Cavallero Zifar.


Notes

[1] The first four chapters are literary debates between body and soul, poetry and prose, this poet and that one, and the pen and the sword. The next six are tales narrating various configurations of love interests, whether a boy and a man, a woman and two men, a man and two women, an old man, a man and a woman, or in the final chapter, a boy raised by a wolf. Decter has written studies of individual chapters. Decter, Jewish Iberian 164-74, “Sodomite,” “Landscapes.”

[2] On this transition and its impact on Sephardic writers see Decter, Iberian.

[3] Decter, Iberian 156.

[4] The shipwreck motif is resonant with the Libro del cavallero Cífar and with the Byzantine novel that is generally populated with shipwrecks. Thomas, Romances 16. Historians of the novel frequently include it in characteristic features of the Byzantine novel. In her discussion of Achilles Tatius’ Kleitophon and Leukippé, Margaret Doody refers to the “usual shipwreck.” Doody, True 54. Margaret Mullett writes that “on a textual level, shipwreck, adverse winds, calms, and pirate raids were expectedly unexpected — and essential to some travel genres as well as to the world view of Byzantium” Mullett, “Peril” 259. For an overview of the shipwreck in the Byzantine novel (both ancient and medieval), see Mullett, “Peril” 269-72.

[5] For a summary of the tale see Decter, Iberian 150-52.

[6] Ben Elazar, Stories 90, ll. 100-05. We find similar such examples of love-before-first-sight in Ibn Hazm’s The Dove’s Neck Ring, where he discusses those who fall in love by dreaming of their beloveds or by hearing others talk about them. Ibn Hazm, Neck-Ring 26-30, Tauq 28-29.

[7] Ben Elazar, Stories 94, ll. 214-17.

[8] Ben Elazar, Stories, 89-90, l. 90-91.

[9] Ben Elazar, Stories 98, ll. 330-31. What makes this so interesting is that it is all couched in Biblical Hebrew, with all the stock biblical imagery, phrasing, and allusions that implies. For example, Kima describes their amorous bond in the same terms that God explains the covenant to Noah. Much like his Christian counterparts, Ben Elazar speaks of love in religious language.. When Sahar speaks of the ‘laws and customs’ of courtly lovers he uses language drawn from Exodus, where Moses’ father-in-law Jethro is exhorting Moses to instruct the Israelites in the new laws received at Sinai (Exodus 18:20).

[10] Ben Elazar, Stories 92, ll. 155-58. According to Georges Duby, “courtly love was a game, an educational game. It was the exact counterpart of the tournament… As at the tournament, the young man was risking his life in the hope of improving himself, of enhancing his worth, his price, and also of taking, taking his pleasure, capturing his adversary after breaking down her defences, unseating her, knocking her down, and toppling her.” Duby, Love 57.

[11] On the Udhri poets, see Encyclopedia of Islam, “`Udhri.” Roger Allen’s capsule description of the love-sensibility of the Udhri corpus bears repeating in full: “The poet-lover places his beloved on a pedestal and worships her from afar. He is obsessed and tormented; he becomes debilitated, ill, and is doomed to a love-death. The beloved in turn becomes the personification of the ideal woman, a transcendental image of all that is beautiful and chaste. The cheek, the neck, the bosom, and, above all, the eyes —a mere glance— these are the cause of passion, longing, devastation, and exhaustion.” Allen, Introduction 105.

[12] Hayim Schirmann notes that the women in Ben Elazar’s stories have a more active role and are more agentive in the narrative (“Contes” 295). This squares with the idea that the chivalric romance developed in order to speak to the concerns of a courtly audience (and perhaps to courtly patronage) that included powerful women.

[13] Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Helga Bennett claim that in Spain, “courtly subjects do not begin to appear until 1300 in the genre of the Libros de caballería.” Gumbrecht and Bennett, “Literary Translation” 208.

[14] Segre, “Bakhtin” 28.

[15] Simon Gaunt writes that “the ubiquitous irony of romance is undoubtedly informed by the opposition between chevalrie and clergie that underscores many texts: a clerical narrator offers an ironic perspective on his chivalric hero.” Gaunt, “Romance” 47.  According to Barbara Fuchs, “their scholarly values of clergerie (clerkness) differ markedly from the aristocratic, heroic chevalrie (chivalry) of romance heroes’ Knights, that is, did not write romances.” Fuchs, Romance 40.

[16] Not just a lack of sovereignty, but speaks to a specific experience – it would be entirely possible to have a religious minority that traditionally bore arms for their king.

Works Cited

Allen, Roger. An Introduction to Arabic Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.

Ben Eleazar, Jacob. The Love Stories of Jacob Ben Eleazar (1170-1233?). Ed. Yonah David. Tel Aviv: Ramot Publishing, 1992. Print.

Decter, Jonathan. “A Hebrew ‘sodomite’ Tale from Thirteenth-century Toledo: Jacob Ben El‘azar’s Story of Sapir, Shapir, and Birsha.” Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies 3 (2011): 187–202. Web. 28 Nov. 2011.

—. “Changing Landscapes of the Hebrew Rhymed Prose Narrative.” Studies in Medieval Jewish Poetry: A Message Upon the Garden. Leiden: Brill, 2011. 55–67. Print.

Decter, Jonathan P. Jewish Iberian Literature: From al-Andalus to Christian Spain. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. Print.

Doody, Margaret. The True Story of the Novel. New Brunswick  N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996. Print.

Duby, Georges. Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Print.

Encyclopedia of Islam CD-ROM Edition. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2004. Print.

Fuchs, Barbara. Romance. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Gaunt, Simon. “Romance and Other Genres.” The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 45–59. Print.

Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich, and Helga Bennett. “Literary Translation and Its Social Conditioning in the Middle Ages: Four Spanish Romance Texts of the 13th Century.” Yale French Studies 51 (1974): 205–222. Web. 23 Feb. 2010.

Ibn Hazm, Ali ibn Ahmad. El Collar De La Paloma. Vol. [3. Madrid: Alianza, 1971. Print.

—. Ṭawq Al-ḥamāmah Fī Al-ulfah Wa-al-ullāf. Ed. Muhammad Ibrahim Salim. al-Qāhirah: Maktabat Ibn Sīnā, 1993. Print.

Mullett, Margaret. “In Peril on the Sea: Travel Genres and the Unexpected.” Travel in the Byzantine World. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2002. 259–284. Print.

Schirmann, J. “Les Contes Rimées De Jacob Ben Eleazar De Toledo.” Etudes D’orientalisme Dédiées a La Mémoire De Lévi-Provençal. Paris, 1962. 285–297. Print.

Segre, Cesare. “What Bakhtin Left Unsaid.” Romance : Generic Transformation from Chrétien De Troyes to Cervantes. Ed. Kevin Brownlee & Marina Scordilis Brownlee. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1985. 23–46. Print.

Out of Diaspora: Sephardic Settlement in 16th-century Palestine

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

Jews from Spain had been settling in the Ottoman Empire since at least the fourteenth century, and after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 the populations of Sephardic Jews in the cities of the Ottoman Empire increased significantly. Messianism was in the air in those days, and Jewish hopes of returning to Zion in anticipation of the arrival of the Messiah coincided with Ottoman imperial designs on Palestine. After the Ottomans annexed Palestine in 1516, Jewish, and especially Sephardic immigration to Palestine surged, fueled both by favorable immigration policies and by messianic fervor. The reconstruction and settlement of Tiberias (an ancient site prophecied to be the arrival point of the messiah) by Don Joseph Nasi during the 1550s, against the backdrop of the gathering of messianic kabbalists in nearby Safed at the same time, provides us with a snapshot of the twin discourses of de-diasporization: the prophetic and the political.

The expulsion from Spain was a collective trauma superseded in Jewish history only by the destruction of Jersualem by Titus Andronicus in the year 70 CE. Since Roman times, the rabbis had developed a sophisticated (if varied) doctrine of galut (literally ‘exile’) or diaspora that both explained the loss of a sovereign Jewish homeland and provided a structure for community governance and daily life both as colonial subjects in Roman Palestine (in the Talmudic tractate Avodah Zarah) and as a diasporic minority elsewhere. Expulsions and persecutions of Jews in various countries over time were fitted into this scheme, rationalized as divine punishment for the Jews’ lax observance of religious law or excessive acculturation, latter-day examples of the golden calf episode in Exodus.

Sephardic writers who witnessed (directly or otherwise) the events of 1492 gave voice to the trauma of the expulsion and the privations suffered by the expelled, mostly following rabbinic tradition but also drawing more modern looking historical parallels with Roman and medieval examples.  It was, after all, the sixteenth century, and the world was at the brink of modernity, a place characterized increasingly by global trade networks, rapid diffusion of ideas in print, and complex patterns of international migrations. Sephardic reactions to expulsion in the 1500s were bound be be different from Judean reactions in the 100s.

Solomon ibn Verga, author of the anthology of persecutions and expulsions titled Shevet Yehudah (Rod of Judah), includes a number of vignettes of what befell the exiles:

Some of them sought a path by sea amongst turbulent waters, but there also the hand of the Lord was with them to confound and exterminate them, for many of them were sold as slaves and servants in all of the lands of the gentiles. Many sank into the sea, drowning, at last, like lead. Others came to perish in fire and water, as the ships caught fire, and thus the fire of the Lord burned against them. (ch. 51)

I heard from the mouths of one of the elders who went out of Spain that in one ship they declared an epidemic of plague, and its captain threw the passengers onto the beach in an unpopulated area, where the majority of them died of hunger. Some decided to go on foot to find a settlement. One of those Jews, his wife, and their children decided to go; his wife, not accustomed to walking, grew weak and perished. The man and his two sons that he had with him also passed out from hunger and, when he regained consciousness, found his two sons dead…. (ch. 52)

Ibn Verga also goes into depth in examining Jewish-Christian relations and what it means to be a member of a diasporic population struggling to stay in the good graces of a temporal power that holds Judaism and often Jews themselves in open contempt. In a fictional debate between the Spanish King and delegates from the Jewish community, the King accuses the Jews of being dishonest thieves, who have been welcomed into Spain only to repay their hosts with crimes and dishonesty. The delegates respond:

As to the question of thievery, what can we say? Certainly we are like rats: one of them eats the cheese and all of them bear the blame. Naturally, there are good and bad [Jews], but the sins are born by all of us. Are there not robbers and thieves among the Christians? Despite the fact that excellent and superior personal qualities are to be found among the Christians, we still see daily hangings for robbery and thievery. But sovereignty covers up many things, like the veil on the woman covers up many imperfections. Diaspora is the opposite, for it uncovers and makes a stain as small as a mustard grain seem as large as the orb of the sun. (ch. 8 )

The neo-realpolitik in Ibn Verga’s historical imagination represents a new direction in Jewish history. On the surface he respects the prophetic tradition. He explains that the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel act merely as instruments of Providence. But he also brings a new, more modern approach, experimenting with representations of the Christian perspective and analyzing the political processes that drive key events.

People reacted differently to the events described by Ibn Verga. Historically,very few Jews emigrated to Palestine from the diaspora, and those who did were typically supported by charitable donations from abroad, there being little to no Jewish commerce or industry in the Holy Land. In the Ottoman period, the more favorable relations between the Sultans and his Jewish subjects resulted in an increased Jewish presence in Palestine. Jewish immigration to Palestine was only a trickle compared to the far larger settlements in important trade centers such as Salonika and Constantinople, but for Jews, Palestine had unparalleled historic and spritual appeal. Some sought refuge in the protection of the Ottoman Empire, seeking to recreate the life they had enjoyed in Spain. For them, the move to Palestine was an ironic double diaspora, a return to the days of Roman Palestine, living in the zionic homeland under a foreign king — a situation, we should remember, that was in perfect accordance with the rabbinic throught of the times.

Two reactions to exile

We can discern two different reactions to the expulsion from Spain in the intellectual and political gestures made by various Sephardim during the sixteenth century. The common response was to turn inward, to shun the vernacular culture and cosmopolitanism that many rabbis interpreted as having invoked God’s punishment of expulsion. Others sought to recreate their Spanish experience by taking full advantage of the benevolence of the Ottoman Sultans and gaining prominence at the Sublime Porte (the court of the Sultan) just as they once had at the courts of Christian monarchs in Spain and Portugal.  Many Sephardim who lived in Palestine had spent some time living as conversos (Jews converted to Catholicism) in Spain, Portugal, and in Spanish territories in Italy. This experience had given them a bittersweet taste of life as a member of the dominant culture. They were more familiar with the intellectual and religious life of the Christian majority than their unconverted Jewish counterparts. As we will see, Some conversos who then returned to Judaism in Italy or in Ottoman lands suffered terrible guilt for having chosen an insincere conversion over expulsion or martyrdom at the hands of the Inquisition. This drove some to an extreme form of pious ascetisicm that ironically bore clear marks of Christian influence. For other ex-conversos, the experience made them hungry for more — not more Christianity, but more of the relative freedom and power that comes with a majority identity. Some toward God, others toward material and political security.

Joseph Karo (Toledo 1488 – Safed 1575) was one of those who turned toward God. Karo was an highly respected expert in Jewish law, and is best known as the author of the definitive synthesis of Jewish law, the Shulkhan Arukh or ‘Set Table.’ He migrated from Spain to Portugal to the Ottoman Empire, passing through Salonika and Constantinople before settling in Safed in Palestine. There he joined a group of pious mystics who concerned themselves with putting the spiritual house of Jewry in order. For Karo and the circle of mystics who had gathered at Safed in northern Palestine, the expulsion was divine retribution for the sins of the Sephardim. Their project was the spiritual refinement of all Jews, to be achieved through rigorious observation of the law and tireless pursuit of the mystical dimensions of the Torah and the commandments. Karo and his companions dedicated themselves to the tireless and compulsive refinement of religious law and mystical practice. For them, the road to redemption was the path of righteousness, exacting fulfillment of the divine commandments and rigorous contemplation of the nature of God. They were not concerned with reestablishing Jewish political power — this would be accomplished only after the arrival of the messiah. And the best way to prepare for this, according to Karo and his circle, was through fastidious observation of the commandments and penetrating contemplation on their mystical meaning.

Karo recorded a series of visions in which the shekhina (God’s feminine aspect according to kabbalistic doctrine) spoke through him. These visions, which are more like a series of lectures on biblical interpretation, promote an extreme ascetism virtually unkown in prior Jewish tradition (it is possible that an influx of conversos who had returned to Judaism in the Ottoman Empire had introduced some ascetic practices from Spanish Catholicism)(Goldish) . Karo summarized these in the introduction to his Magid Meisharim (‘Preacher of Righteousness’):

Be careful to avoid taking taking pleasure while eathing meat and drinking, or while partaking of any other kind of enjoyment. Act as if a demon were forcing you to eat this food or indulge in the enjoyable activity. You should very much prefer it were possible to exist without food and drink altogether, or were it possible to fulfill the obligation of procreation without enjoyment. (Fine 56)

The particular flavor of mystic aseticism practiced by Karo and his associates in Safed was a novelty in the Jewish context, bringing to a head a tendency that had been percolating in Sephardic religious practice at least since the anti-Jewish violence of 1391 in Spain (Goldish, “Patterns”). The expulsion had kicked off a messianic fervor that lead some, most notably Isaac Abravanel (leader of Castilian Jewry and father of Leone Ebreo, the author of the Dialogues of Love) to predict its arrival in 1503 (Netanyahu 216-226). This movement died out after the 1540 arrival predicted the self-fashioned messiah Solomon Molkho did not come to pass. In the Ottoman Palestinian context, messianic hopes were further stirred when Suleyman the Magnificent rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem between 1536 and 1542 (Levy 20-21). Afterward, kabbalists such as those gathered at Safed changed course, urging a general purification of Judaism and of Jews worldwide in order to hasten the arrival of the Messiah.  And while their messianism was not as urgent at that of the previous century, they introduced an important innovation in Jewish messianism: Karo himself was the first to suggest that it was human action, and not divine action, that would bring about the coming of the messiah and the redemption of the Jews (Elior 22). They took on personal responsibility for what they perceived as the moral failings of the exiled Sephardim and strove for a spiritual perfection that would pave the way for the coming of the messiah through the mystical work of reuniting the shekhina with her lover.

Karo’s student Moses Cordovero likewise taught that redemption—allegorized in the reunion of the King (God’s masculine aspect) with his Queen (God’s feminine aspect)—depends upon human actions. When we do good, we draw them together; when we sin, we drive them apart (Jacobs 37). The more good deeds we perform, the sooner comes the Messiah. Simple.

Cordovero wrote a guide to making this happen called The Palm Tree of Deborah. According to Cordovero, when we do good, we do good not just to ourselves to also to God, who benefits from our actions:

In the acts of benevolence man carries out in the lower world he should have the intention of perfecting the upper worlds after the same pattern and this is what is meant by doing lovingkindness to the creator. (Cordovero 91-92)

Likewise, bad deeds do harm to the Shekhina, God’s feminine aspect in Kabbalistic thinking:

the flaw of his deeds pushes away the Shekhinah from above. He should fear to cause this great evil of separating the love of the King from the Queen. (Cordovero 117)

So, when we imitate a given divine trait (as revealed in Scripture), we act not only on this world but also upon the divine world. The good deed of healing the sick heals not only the sick person on Earth, but also helps to cure the sickness of the Shekhina in heaven, who is lovesick due to her separation from the King (God). Cordovero therefore instructs us to

visit the sick and heal them. For it is known that the Shekhinah is love-sick for the Union, as it is written: ‘For I am love-sick.’ Her cure is in the hands of man who can bring her the good medicine she requires, as it is written: ‘Stay me with dainties, support me with apples’ [Song of Songs 2: 5]. (Cordovero 94)

This messianism was not in the least political —on the contrary, Jewish messianic doctrine had long held that Jewish sovereignty would not return to Zion until the messiah had already arrived. But not all Sephardic Jews were content to defer sovereignty until the messianic age, nor to dedicate themselves, as did Karo and the Safed mystics, to ritual purification in hopes that it might speed the messiah’s arrival. At least one man, as if in response to Ibn Verga’s lament on the travails of diaspora, sought to take matters into his own hands.

Don Joseph Nasi and the Tiberias Experiment

While Karo and his mystics focused their energies inward, penetrating deep spiritual mysteries, his namesake Don Joseph Nasi (formerly João Miguez), the Duke of Naxos and de facto leader of Ottoman Sephardi Jewry in the mid-sixteenth century, focused on temporal power. In 1561 Don Joseph negotiated a perpetual land grant consisting of the ancient Galilean city of Tiberias and its surroundings, with the aim of rebuilding the ruins of that city and establishing there a silk and textile operation similar to the one previously established in nearby Safed (on the opposite shore of the Sea of Galilee).

From the Ottoman point of view, Jewish migration to Palestine followed the customary practice of incentivizing religious minorities with specialized commercial and administrative skills to settle in provincial centers. Both parties were served: the Sephardim enjoyed advantageous tax rates and lucrative concessions, while the Ottomans both broadened their tax base and hedged their political interests vis-à-vis indigenous Arab leadership. In the case of Palestine, a Jewish settlement in the Galilee served to bolster Ottoman interests against those of local Arab sheikhs, who found common cause with the Franciscan Dean against Don Joseph. The Dean, Bonifacio Stefano Ragusi, wrote against Don Joseph’s (whom he refers to as João Miguez, his Christian name) plans in a letter. He writes that he fears that the Jewish settlers will try to turn St. Peter’s church into a synagogue:

The infidel jew Zaminex [Don Joseph Nasi —apparently the name used here is a distortion of his Portuguese name, João Miguez] hoped to expel the snakes [Muslims] and settle his brethren the poisonous vipers [Jews] there, to turn our church into a synagogue. In order to stand in the breach, I consulted in utmost secrecy with Rustem Pasha and Ali Pasha [governor of Damascus] and they promised me that no such thing would come to pass during Sultan Suleiman’s lifetime. Their deeds matched their words. (David, Come 32; original Latin in Ragusi, Perenni 269)

What must have been most disturbing to Don Joseph’s enemies in the region was not the mere fact of Jewish immigration, but the unmistakably political nature of the project, a permanent Jewish settlement in the very place where, according to tradition, the messiah would make his first appearance on earth. It was as if these settlers wanted a front-row seat for the redemption, and they were willing to camp out for it, not just all night, but indefinitely.

While to the Ottomans the Sephardim brought administrative skills and extensive business and social networks, the Sephardi discourse of immigration to Palestine was heavily prophetic: ejected from their ancestral homeland Iberia, they sublimated the longing for Spain into a Biblical-flavored discourse of the return from diaspora to the promised land. As favorable as conditions were for them in Salonika or Constantinople, only Zion (even if it came in the form of Ottoman Palestine) could fill the symbolic void that the loss of Sepharad had opened. For them Ottoman Palestine became, in a sense, the homeland they had lost in Spain.

For a community that for centuries had defined itself as a diaspora, for the great majority of whom the scriptural and prophetic homeland of Zion was more symbolic than concrete, what must the prospect of return have been like? It is tempting to draw parallels with the example of post-World War Two Zionism, in which it was a simple symbolic calculus for victims of the Nazis to reclaim the biblical promise of sovereignty as a bulwark against further abuses. But Ottoman Palestine was another time and place, and Joseph’s Tiberian experiment must be read against its own particular background.

Ottoman annexation of Palestine in 1516 opened the gate for increased Jewish immigration to the ancestral homeland. Previous Jewish migration to Palestine was exclusively spiritual, and the olim (those who had ‘gone up’) were supported by charitable donations from the diaspora. This was also the case with the kabbalists settled in Safed, who enjoyed the patronage of diaspora communities as well as that of the powerful Doña Gracia Nasi and her nephew Don Joseph Nasi.

Don Joseph’s Tiberian project differed from other patterns of Jewish settlement in the Ottoman Empire in that it was political as opposed to merely mercantile. In other areas of the Ottoman Empire the Jews pursued commerce, worked as imperial functionaries, or as artisans. In Tiberias, Don Joseph’s plan was long-term and vertically integrated: he planted mulberries outside the city to support silkworm farming, which in turn provided the raw materials for an offshoot of the textiles business that was flourishing in Salonika and to a lesser extent in nearby Safed (some 15km away). Joseph’s aim was to build a durable Jewish settlement that would anchor the growth of a Galilean Jewish fiefdom within Ottoman Palestine. This amounted to a geographic projection of Don Joseph’s influence at the Sublime Porte, the Sultan’s court at Constantinople.

Tiberias was quite near Safed, which had been a thriving center of religious studies for nearly a hundred years. By the time that Joseph began to rebuild the walls of ancient Tiberias, renowned kabbalists such as Isaac Luria, Solomon Alkabetz, and Moses Cordovero were revolutionizing religious life throughout mediterranean Jewry. They cultivated extreme ascetic practices and wrote texts that would become seminal works of kabbalah. The urgency with which they worked and the intellectual ferment that characterized their small circle of mystics was nearly unparalleled in Jewish history.

During the 1560s, while Don Joseph worked to establish his colony, Tiberias and Safed were like twin cities, each expressing a different reaction to the Sephardic diaspora. Some adopted a diasporic apolitical (though one might argue political in its non-engagement) posture, making sovereignty a religious ideal while simultaneously evolving sophisticated strategies to thrive as a non-sovereign nation. We should not forget that Karo was unsurpassed in his systematization of Jewish law. Far from a sloppy ecstatic, he was a compulsive, cerebral mystic. He is not like al-Ghazali in that he was equally rigorous as a lawyer and as mystic. While Don Joseph’s reaction was more political, it shared the industriousness that characterized Karo’s thought. Both were examples of the Sephardic reaction to diaspora, of turnng and re-turning (Tölölyan) to Zion.

Works Cited

  • David, Abraham. To Come to the Land: Immigration and Settlement in Sixteenth-Century Eretz-Israel. Tuscaloosa  Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1999. Print.
  • Elior, Rachel. “Exile and Redemption in Jewish mystical thought.” Journal of the Interdisciplinary Study of Monotheistic Religions (JISMOR) 4 (2008): 11-24.
  • Fine, Lawrence. Safed Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
  • Goldish, Matt. “Patterns in Converso Messianism.” Jewish Messianism in the Early Modern World. Vol. 1. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2001. 41-63.
  • Ibn Verga, Solomon. Sefer Shevet Yehudah. Ed. Azriel Shohet. Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1946.
  • —. La vara de Yehudah. Trans. María José Cano. Barcelona: Riopiedras, 1991.
  • Jacobs, Louis. “Introduction.” The Palm Tree of Deborah. Trans. Louis Jacobs. London: Valentine Mitchell, 1960. 1-39.
  • Levy, Avigdor. The Sephardim in the Ottoman Empire. Princeton: Darwin, 1992.
  • Netanyahu, B. Don Isaac Abravanel, statesman & philosopher. 5th ed. Ithaca  N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.
  • Ragusino, Bonifacio Stefano. Liber de Perenni Cultu Terrae Sanctae. Venice, 1875.
  • Roth, Cecil. The House of Nasi: the Duke of Naxos. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1992.
  • Tölölyan, Khachig. “The Contemporary Discourse of Diaspora Studies.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 27.3 (2007): n. pag. Accessed 20 July 2010.

This post was made possible with support from the UC Mediterranean Studies Research Project/Mediterranean Seminar and forms the basis of a roundtable presentation given at the The Mediterranean Seminar (UC Multi Campus Research Project), Spring Workshop Roundtable: ‘Reconstructing the Past.’ UC San Diego, 3 Feb 2012.

Your feedback and comments appreciated. Use comment field below or email me.

 

Translation in Diaspora: the Hebrew Amadís de Gaula

[This post includes material later revised and expanded in Double Diaspora in Sephardic Literature: Jewish Cultural Production before and after 1492 (Indiana University Press, 2015) and in “Translation in Diaspora: Sephardic Spanish-Hebrew Translations in the Sixteenth Century.” A Comparative History of Literatures in the Iberian Peninsula. Ed. César Domínguez & María José Vega. Vol. 2. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2017. 351-63. https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:10227/]

In a previous entry, I discussed the literary and cultural contexts of Jacob Algaba’s 1541 Hebrew translation of Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s 1508 chivalric novel, Amadís de Gaula. Here I would like to talk more directly about the text of the translation itself, in order to show what Algaba’s translation does as a translation made by and for members of a culture in diaspora.

Amadís de Gaula is a chivalric romance that became a bestseller and major entertainment franchise in sixteenth-century Spain. In 1508 Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo published what would be the first of a multiple-volume series of the adventures of Amadis of Gaul and his numerous successors. It spawned a wildly successful (and widely critcized) genre of popular novel that famously met its demise at the hands of Miguel de Cervantes, who mercilessly parodied the books in the figure of Don Quijote. The novel was perhaps the most important exemplar of the Spanish chivalric imagination, an iconic brand or franchise that was instantly recognizable as Spanish. It was a natural favorite for Sephardic Jews who, while living in Constantinople, Salonika, or elsewhere, spoke Spanish and still identified strongly with the vernacular culture of their land of origin. Its reception by Sephardic Jews and its translation into Hebrew offers us a glimpse into the literary practices of the Sephardic diaspora. The Hebrew Amadís can help us to better understand the diasporic cultural production of the Sephardim.

And when we say ‘diaspora,’ what do we mean? I’ve written in another post on the idea of ‘double diaspora,’ that the Sephardim (Spanish Jews) experienced not only the diaspora from their Biblical homeland, which I will call ‘Zion’ but also a diaspora from Sefarad (Spain). They experienced —and gave voice to— the separation from their ancestral land of Sefarad in terms both real and symbolic, and their cultural production in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere in the Sephardic diaspora should be understood in light of this fact.

Why does this matter when we are studying the cultural significance of a translation? It matters because in doing so we are expanding the discussion of Jewish diaspora. First-wave modern theorists of diaspora writing in the 1970s and 1980s argued that the cultural imagination of diasporic populations vacillate between two geographical territories, constantly mediating between the symbolic value of their homeland and the lived reality of their current hostland. Later theorists of more recent diasporas have criticized this ‘dual-territorial’ model. Sudesh Mishra, one of the harshest critics of this approach, argues that it cannot address the complexities of the modern diasporas of Indian, African, Chinese, and other populations.

This discussion has prompted historians and theorists of Jewish diaspora take a second look at how they think about Jewish history and culture in diaspora. The concept of ‘double diaspora’ attempts to account for some of this complexity by studying the cultural production of the Sephardim in and beyond Spain as giving voice to two overlaid layers of diaspora that interact, and in the words of Jonathan Boyarin, “echo back and forth” in the Sephardic cultural imagination.

Ottoman Jewish print culture

Before examining the text of the translation itself it is worth considering Algaba’s Hebrew Amadís in the context of the Hebrew print culture and of the Ottoman Jewish society of the times. The Hebrew print industry was active in Spain from the late fifteenth century, and presses in Spain produced a great number of religious works (Bibles, Talmuds, Biblical commentaries, liturgical and moralistic texts, etc.) but also volumes of philosophy, science, and what we might call secular prose such as histories and fiction. In the early sixteenth century Hebrew printing continued to flourish first in Italy and then in Ottoman cities such as Salonika, Adrianopole, and Constantinople.

For most of the sixteenth century nearly all titles with any discernible Jewish content were published in Hebrew (in Salonika printers brought out a few titles in Judeo-Spanish, and Italian printers published some in Italian or in both Italian and Hebrew) but for the most part Hebrew had pride of place as the prestige language of the Jewish press. However, Jewish printers in Italy and the Ottoman Empire were not culturally isolated or closed to the vernacular and learned languages of their non-Jewish neighbors. On the contrary, the itinerant printer Gershon Soncino (who moved his press a number of times to various locations in Italy and the Ottoman Empire) published a number of titles for Christian patrons in Italian, Greek, and Latin. Apparently, the Greek vernacular culture of the Ottoman Romaniote Jews did not have sufficient caché to warrant repackaging in Hebrew. Constantinople Jews were not commonly very proficient in Turkish in the sixteenth century, and in any event the Ottomans did not license Turkish-language printing until the mid-eighteenth century, so that option was not on the table for Soncino.

In Ottoman Jewish society, Hebrew was the academic and religious lingua franca of a number of different ethnic groups who had settled in Ottoman cities. While Salonika in the sixteenth century was overwhelmingly Sephardic, the indigenous Greek-Speaking Romaniote Jews had significant communities in the cities and were joined by Ashkenazi Jews from Western and Eastern Europe as well as some Mizrahi (Eastern) Jews from the Arabic, Persian, and Turkic-speaking areas of the Ottoman Empire and beyond. But by their numbers, their superior cultural level, and their considerable network of commercial and diplomatic contacts, the Sephardim quickly emerged as the prestige subculture of Ottoman Jewry. This, along with the fact that Sephardim conversant in Spanish would have no need of a Hebrew translation in order to read Amadís, suggests that the translation was made either for Greek-speaking (but Hebrew-reading) Romaniote Jews in Ottoman lands or perhaps for non-Spanish-speaking Jewish readers in any country that Algaba’s edition might eventually reach. At this time Jewish merchants, diplomats, and scholars traveled widely throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. While he have no documentary evidence of the reception of Algaba’s translation, it is not unreasonable to think that copies may have ended up in the hands of readers in Cairo, Tunis, Venice, Troyes, or Cochin for that matter.

Sephardic culture (in the broad sense) had long history of prestige in the East, going back to Maimonides, who retained the sobriquet ‘Ha-Sefardí’ long after leaving his native Cordoba. The Ottoman Sephardim likewise represented this prestige, expressed both in their Spanish vernacular culture and in the wealth and influence they wielded. Accordingly, the Sephardic community attracted and assimilated members from the other groups, and soon was the dominant ethnic culture in Ottoman Jewish society. As we read Algaba’s text we should keep two things in mind: he was in all likelihood writing for non-Sephardic Jews, and he was consciously representing Sephardic culture to them in choosing to translate a Spanish (European) novel, a genre that had yet to be introduced to Hebrew.

The task of Algaba’s Amadís

Let us how turn to the text and see how Algaba worked with Montalvo’s text to appeal to Jewish audiences and (it must be said) to sell copies of his translation. One common strategy of Algaba is to de-Christianize the text, removing references that might offend Jewish sensibilities. It is noteworthy that in most of these cases he avoids substituting specifically Jewish terms or concepts. Algaba’s Amadís is the first major narrative work in a register of Hebrew that is largely free of the dense weave of clever Biblical and rabbinical allusions that was characteristic of nearly every other work of Hebrew prose being published at the time (Judah al-Harizi’s Tahkemoni, Judah ibn Shabbetay’s Offering of Judah, Vidal Benvenist’s Tale of Efer and Dina, etc.)

The Anchorite, by Teodor Axentowicz (1859–1938)

In Algaba’s translation, priests become laymen, oaths are secularized, and moralizing digressions (to which Montalvo was famously inclined) are simply omitted. Most of these examples are superficial and predictable. When Amadís exclaims “¡Sancta María!” Algaba substitutes ‘Long live my Lord the King!’ Montalvo has the Queen lead Amadís into her “capilla” (chapel), which Algaba renders as “cámara” (chamber). Elsewhere, Amadís comes upon a wounded knight in the road who asks to be taken to an “hermitaño” (Anchorite) who might ‘tend to his soul,’ which Algaba renders as ‘someone who might heal me.’

Occasionally Algaba changes the moral valence of a term that is not specifically Christian but that might have been unseemly to Montalvo’s target readership. Montalvo describes the inaugural sexual encounter between Amadís and Oriana, for example, as “vicio y plazer” (‘vice and pleasure’), which Algaba renders as ‘delight and happiness.’ When Amadís comes upon a damsel who has been sexually assaulted, in Montalvo’s version she relates that she was “escarnecida” (‘dishonored’) by her attacker, while Algaba’s damsel simply says: “he lay with me.”

Most of the examples of Algaba’s de-christianization of the text are similarly routine; but some merit interpretation. When King Languines orders a traitorous woman burnt to death, Algaba instead has her thrown to her death from a high tower. His reluctance to depict her being burned may be out of respect to victims of the Spanish Inquisition. His alternative may be dawn from Josephus: in the Sefer Yosippon, the medieval Hebrew translation of Josephus’ history, Jezebel meets a similar fate as punishment for her sins.

Despite his secularizing tendency, there are some moments in which he (for lack of a better, less-charged term) ‘Judaizes’ the text, inserting references to Jewish texts, cultural concepts, and observances. A few of these replace Christian references, but many appear to be spontaneous, whether out of a desire to appeal to his audience or, occasionally, for ironic effect.  When Amadís’ step-brother Galaor bids farewell to the giant who raised him on a remote island, the giant asks “que le huviesse memoria” (‘that he remember him’); in the Hebrew takes a more spiritual turn and asks that ‘he not be forgotten from his prayers.’

In particularly playful rabbinical allusion, Amadís deals his enemy a crippling blow to the thigh. In addition to the direct translation for thigh (yareakh) Algaba adds a technical term drawn from the rabbinic discourse on koshering animal carcasses: maqom tsomet hagidin, ‘the place where the tendons come together.’ This is Algaba’s ironic response to the episode in Genesis where the angel, tired of wrestling with Jacob all night long, finally “wrenched Jacob’s hip at the socket” (32: 26). The Biblical text then explains “that is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip [i.e. sirloin, top loin, etc.], since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle” (32:33). Where the Biblical texts derives its dietary ruling from the battle between Jacob and the angel, Algaba playfully writes the language of dietary restriction back into the battle between Amadís and his opponent.

Sephardic chivalry and courtly discourse

Perhaps most significant for our discussion is Algaba’s interpretation of Montalvo’s frequent references to the chivalric and courtly cultural world represented in Amadís. It stands to reason that non-Sephardic Jews, who had never lived in Christian Europe would be unfamiliar with the institutions and practices of chivalry that form the fabric of the social world of Amadís. You cannot, of course, trade on foreign caché that is totally incomprehensible to your audience.  To this end Algaba tailors Montalvo’s references to the institutions of chivalry, social conventions, and courtly practices that may have fallen outside the experience of his non-Sephardic readers. As in the examples of de-Christianization, some such examples are superficial, but telling of differences of expectations of what ‘courtly’ or ‘chivalric’ might mean to non-Sephardic, Jewish audiences.

A character named ‘la doncella de la guirnalda’ (‘the damsel of the garland’), so named because she always wore a garland of flowers to accentuate her beautiful hair, becomes in Algaba’s version the ‘damsel of the crown,’ an accessory that ostensibly made more sense to the Ottoman readers to whom a garland of flowers might have seemed more rustic than idyllic. Algaba often renders declarations couched in elevated courtly language (which abound), in Biblical Hebrew, which better emphasizes their high register. When Amadís declares “¡muerto soy de corazón!” (I shall die of heartbreak!), Algaba renders mah anokhi, she-nitraf libi! (‘What will become of me, for my heart is torn asunder!’), deploying the rarer first-person pronoun anokhi found in the Hebrew Bible. When a rival knight mocks Amadís as unworthy to love Oriana, challenges Amadís to “tell me who she is, so that I may love her.” Algaba puts into his mouth the instantly recognizable words of the Song of Songs (6:10): haged na li mi ha-nishkafa-kemo shahar (‘who is she that shines through like the dawn’). Again Algaba shows a bit of playfulness in his ironic deployment of biblical language, emphasizing the intensity of the discussion between Amadís and his rival in a way that makes sense to his audience.

Algaba translates some of the specific conventions and practices of Spain’s chivalric culture into more familiar, general terms. When Amadís swears an oath of service to Helisenda, he does so “en esta cruz y espada con que la orden de cavallería recebí” (‘upon this cross and sword which I received with the Order of Chivalry’), referencing a specifically Christian, chivalric practice of swearing upon a sword planted point down so that the handle and guard resemble a cross. The reference to the Order of Chivalry would most likely be opaque, and swearing on the cross unacceptable to a Jewish audience. Algaba has him swear simply upon his sword as a kind of shorthand. When Helisena appeals to the honor of King Perión’s squire, she asks him if he is an hidalgo (nobleman of low rank); by this she means ‘are you an honorable individual with whom I can trust my secret?’ Algaba preserves the equation of high birth and good moral conduct implied by the word hidalgo but his Helisena asks the squire ‘who are you and your family? Are they high born? (me`olah, literally ‘superior’ or ‘fine’).

Cárcel de amor, Barcelona, Joan Rosembach 1493

Very occasionally, Algaba demonstrates his familiarity with courtly and chivalric discourse by introducing elements of them into the Hebrew when they are absent from the Spanish. In one such example, Amadís is complaining to Oriana about the difficulty of deferring his sexual desire for her. His complaint is couched in standard language of the courtly lover. He claims it is an impossible task, because his “juizio no puede resistir aquellos mortales deseos de quien cruelmente es atormentado” (‘better judgment cannot resist those mortal desires by which it is cruelly tormented’). What is interesting is that Algaba’s Hebrew rendering introduces a different trope of the courtly lover, one that is also characteristic of Montalvo’s day but that is absent from prior Hebrew tradition. He writes: “my heart is bound and tied in iron chains,” an image very much consistent with the late medieval Western European poetic convention of love as a form of slavery or imprisonment (Spanish books on amorous topics of the late fifteenth century included Siervo libre de amorFree Slave of Love’ and Cárcel de amor Prison of Love). Here Algaba proves himself a knowledgeable reader of Spanish tradition who actively seeks to reconcile, integrate, and mediate between Hebrew and Spanish literary traditions. His insertion of this courtly trope speaks to his biculturality and more importantly to his role of translator mediating between diasporic communities, the Sephardim who represented the prestige of European courtly culture, and the Greek- and Arabic-speaking Jews who were his target audience.

Conclusion

Algaba’s translation project was ultimately a commercial failure. His translation of the first book of Montalvo’s Amadís was of very low quality, and for whatever reason did not appear to have stimulated demand for subsequent installments. We have no concrete data to explain this fact, but we may speculate. Perhaps the time had not yet come for ‘light literature’ in Hebrew. Algaba’s Amadís was certainly alone in that respect: it is the only Hebrew edition of its times of a popular novel. The other secular works that were published in the sixteenth century were more ‘serious’ literature: difficult rhyming prose narratives that were showy displays of erudition and arcana, histories of Jewish persecutions or of the regimes that persecuted them, and a smattering of philosphical and scientific works. Algaba’s test balloon novel was an aberration, and the European novel would not make a significant début in Hebrew until the eighteenth century. Nonetheless, Algaba’s Amadís does tell us a great deal about how he sought to represent Sephardic popular culture to the other communities of the Jewish diaspora in the Ottoman Empire of his day. His adaptation of Montalvo’s iconic work for a non-Sephardic Jewish audience is an illuminating example of how Sephardim chose to articulate their relationship with the land from which they found themselves in a second, Sephardic diaspora.

Works cited

  • Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999. Print.
  • Boyarin, Jonathan. Personal communication. 3 Oct 1993. Cited in Clifford, James. “Diasporas.” Cultural Anthropology 9.3 (1994): 302-338, 305.
  • Mishra, Sudesh. Diaspora criticism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.
  • Rodríguez de Montalvo, Garci. Amadís de Gaula. Ed. Juan Manuel Cacho Blecua. Madrid: Cátedra, 1996.
  • —. ʻAlilot ha-abir. Trans. Jacob Algaba. Ed. Tzvi Malachi. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University Press, 1981. Print.

This post is based on a paper I gave at the 2012 Modern Langages Association Convention in Seattle, session #260, “From Spain to Sephardic Culture, Language, Literature, and Self-Identity.” You can see the slides here.

Reading Amadís in Istanbul

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

Summary

Constantinople circa 1500

It was 1541 in Constantinople when Sephardic physician Jacob Algaba published his Hebrew translation of the first book of Spanish runaway bestseller Amadís de Gaula (1508). His translation of the endless adventures of the knight errant became the first novel written in the Hebrew language, and a literary example of Sephardic culture as the site of a symbolic struggle between the Spanish and Ottoman Empires.

In a way Algaba’s translation is exemplary of the complex relationship Sephardim had with the culture of the land from which they had been expelled in 1492.  Part of the way in which the Sephardim expressed their ‘Spanishness’ was in mimicking the intellectual and cultural habits of Imperial Spain.  They reenacted Spanish cultural imperialism by their imposition of Sephardic culture on the Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire and by their adaptation of the Humanist rhetoric of Spanish historians and novelists. Just as the Spanish Amadís was imagined as a Christian hero of Spanish imperial designs, Algaba’s Sephardic Amadís was a sort of avatar of Sephardic supremacy within the Jewish world, and a response to the Sephardim’s alienation from Spain.

On the stage of the Mediterranean at the turn of the sixteenth century, the Sephardim are a sort of by-product of empire. Jettisoned from Spain, the Sephardim were free to rebrand ‘Spanishness’ to suit their own interests. They were hardly, after all, ambassadors of Spanish interests. But they were profoundly shaped by the cultural legacy of the land they had called home for over one thousand years by 1492. Though rejected by their home metropolis, they were still able to convert their Spanish identity into social currency in the host metropolis.

A Knight against the Turk

The chivalric novel Amadís de Gaula (1508) by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo was a smash hit and set the standard for popular fiction of the sixteenth century. Readers could not get enough of the (seemingly endless) exploits of the knight errant who protected the weak, battled dark knights, sorcerers, and dragons, all in the name of his beautiful damsel Oriana. Montalvo’s book, and its many, lucrative sequels, itself became a kind of popular literary monster that only Don Quijote could defeat, effectively parodying Amadís and his successors to death in 1605.

Wait til they get a load of him

But Amadís was more than a fictional hero. Spanish readers imagined him (and in particular his son, Esplandían) as a kind of avatar of Spanish imperial desire, a knight in service to Spain first against the Muslim Kingdom of Granada, and then against the Turk (the Ottoman Empire). In casting these fictional knights errant as imperial heroes, Montalvo was simply participating in the Humanism of his times. Humanist writers working at the court of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella actively promoted a program of imperial imagery that painted Spain as a new Rome, mixing language and imagery from the Latin writings of Imperial Rome with specifically Iberian and Catholic elements. The result was a narrative in which the Spanish crown was a renewal of the Holy Roman Empire, itself a renewal of Classical Rome (Tate, Ensayos 292). In the introduction to the first Amadís, Montalvo wonders aloud how the writers of Classical Rome would have been inspired to new heights had they witnessed the glorious campaigns of King Ferdinand in Granada:

¡what flowers, what roses might they have planted on its occasion, as concerns the bravery of the knights in the battles, skirmishes, and dangerous duels and all the other cases of confrontations and travails that were performed in the course of that war, as well as of the compelling speeches made by the great King to his nobles gathered in the royal campaign tents, the obedient replies made by them, and above all, the great praises, the lofty admirations that he deserves for having taken on and accomplished such a Catholic task!
(Rodríguez Montalvo, Amadís 219-220, translation mine).

Once the threat of Muslim Granada had been conquered by Ferdinand and Isabel in 1492, it was a logical next step to look toward Istanbul. The Ottoman Turks had, after all, conquered Constantinople in the not-so-distant past, and the loss of Christian Constantinople was, during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs, still a fresh wound. Diego Enríquez del Castillo (ca. 1500), wrote that “the pain of the loss of Constantinople, that the Turk had conquered, was very recent in the hearts of all.” (Crónica 156). Ever since the Ottoman sack of Otranto, Italy in 1481, Spanish (and particularly Aragonese) writers were preoccupied by the possibility of a Turkish invasion of the Peninsula (Giráldez, Sergas 24). While an Ottoman invasion of Spain was probably not in the offing, such fears were similar to US fears of a Soviet invasion 1960s following the Cuban Revolution and famously parodied in the 1966 film The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming. The cult of Amadís and his successors and their iconic (if anachronistic) status as Christian heroes of imaginary conquests in the Mediterranean East were an understandable, if irrational, reaction.

Don Quijote’s Dream Team: Knights Errant vs the Turk

Mehmet enters Constantinople (1454) by Fausto Zonaro (1854-1929)

Amadís finally met his match in Don Quijote, who parodied the knight errant protagonists of the Spanish chivalric novel beyond any hope of redemption. Interestingly, Cervantes also zeroed in on the tendency of fans of chivalric fiction to conflate the exploits of their heroes with current events. In this scene, Alonso Quijano (aka Don Quijote) suggests a simple solution for King Philip II’s ‘Ottoman Problem’: round up all the Spanish knights errant and send them to fight the Turk:

there might be one among them who could, by himself, destroy all the power of the Turk…. [if] the famous Don Belianís were alive today, or any one of the countless descendants of Amadís of Gaul! If any of them were here today and confronted the Turk, it would not be to his advantage!’ (trans. Grossman 461)

The effect is similar to a movie in which the sci-fi crazed protagonist suggests sending Luke Skywalker to battle Al-Qaeda. The English translator of Sergas de Esplandían (Montalvo’s sequel to Amadís) made a similar observation, calling Luke Skywalker “a kind of Esplandían redividus” (Little, “Introduction” 21).

What does a Sephardic Amadís look like? And what might a Hebrew Amadís champion, if not the Spanish conquest of Ottoman Istanbul where Jacob Algaba translated the exploits of the Ur-Knight Errant into Hebrew a generation after Montalvo described Amadís’ deeds as worthy to be celebrated by the pens of Imperial chroniclers? In order to answer this, we need to take a look at the ways in which Sephardic intellectuals retooled and adapted the intellectual habits of the Spain they had left behind.

‘Doing Spanish’: Sephardic Humanism and Cultural Imperialism

Upon their arrival in Ottoman lands, the Sephardim proceeded to dominate the Romaniote (Greek-speaking) and other Jewish communities. They were bearers of a prestigious European cultural legacy, and many of them were highly skilled in areas valued by the Ottoman Sultans: finance, administration, diplomacy, and the like. In addition the Sephardim had access to tremendous social capital in the form of international, even global trade and diplomatic networks. Contemporary sources bear out this characterization of the Sephardim as the socially and culturally dominant group within Ottoman Jewry, imposing their liturgy, rabbinic jurisprudence, cuisine, language, and social customs on the wider community. Writing in 1509, Rabbi Moses Aroquis of Salonika bears witness to this phenomenon:

It is well known that the Sephardim and their scholars in this empire, together with the other communities that have joined them, make up the majority, may the lord be praised. To them alone the land was given, and they are its glory and its splendor and its magnificence, enlightening the land and its inhabitants. Who deserves to order them about? All these places too should be considered as ours, and it is fitting that the small number of early inhabitants of the empire observe all our religious customs… (cited in Hacker, “Sephardim” 111)

This Sephardic cultural imperialism is one way in which the Sephardim expressed their ‘Spanishness,’ in carrying out a version of the Spanish cultural imperialism that characterized the late fifteenth century. Just as Spain colonized the Canary Islands, the New World, and bits of North Africa, the Sephardim did likewise in their new territories, the Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire.

This imperialism, like the Spanish, also had its attendant historiography, its intellectual culture: a Sephardic Humanism. The historian Solomon ibn Verga, writing in Hebrew in the mid-sixteenth century, borrowed liberally from Spanish sources and like his Christian historian counterparts, legitimized the current political order by linking it to the regimes of Classical Antiquity. In his history of expulsions and persecutions he writes like a Humanist, substituting both authors of Hebrew antiquity (Bible, Rabbis) for Latin and Greek authors favored by Christian humanists, but he also draws on Classical and medieval Iberian authors, lending his prose of more sophisticated, cosmopolitan tone. (Gutwirth, “Expulsion” 149-150). He cites Josephus frequently, creating a Jewish humanist precedent in the Roman author who plays Virgil to his Dante.

Amadís in the Sephardic context

What is the role of a Hebrew Amadís in this context? As with the case of Ibn Verga’s history book (Shevet Yehudah), the project of the Sephardic intellectual is twofold: on the one hand, they sought to legitimize their work by drawing on the prestige of Spanish Humanism; on the other, they reshaped this humanism into one that reflected the values of the community in a diasporic, transimperial context.

But never on Shabbat

Algaba’s translation does not appear ex nihilo. Ottoman Sephardim were avid readers of Spanish editions of Amadís and other chivalric novels. In the early sixteenth century, Jerusalemite Rabbi Menahem di Lunzano chastised his community (in verse) for reading Amadís and Palmerín [de Olivia, 1511]  on Shabbat (the Sabbath), when they should have been reading religious books (Di Lunzano, Shete Yadot f. 135v). There was also a robust tradition of ballads sung in Sephardic communities about heroes named Don Amadí (or sometimes Amalví or other variants). Many of these songs had nothing to do whatsoever with the stories found in Montalvo’s book; Amadís had simply come to mean ‘hero’ in the popular Sephardic imagination. (Armistead and Silverman, “Amadís” 29-30)

Jacob Algaba’s Hebrew translation of Amadís de Gaula

Montalvo’s original Amadís had to pass muster with the Catholic censors and with the chivalric imaginary of the Spain of the Catholic Monarchs. Algaba, while giving voice to the Sephardic love for their vernacular culture, is free of these limits. He based his translation not from Montalvo’s 1508 edition, but from an earlier manuscript version whose Amadís was earthier, wilier, less courtly and less likely to make it into print in Spain in 1508. Algaba’s Amadís plays dirty when nessary, and the characters in Algaba’s version tell it like it is. In one example, Algaba includes an episode omitted by Montalvo where Amadís tricks his opponent into looking away in order to hit him: He asks the knight ‘to whom does that beautiful maiden behind you belong?’ When the knight looks away, Amadís sticks him in the groin with his lance, spilling his guts (Piccus, “Corrections” 187-88). In another example, Montalvo omits a reference to a character farting that is included by Algaba (Piccus, “Corrections” 201). These are scenes that do not pass muster with the chivalric imaginary of the Spain of the Catholic Monarchs.

The Hebrew Amadís, therefore, is at once celebratory of and resistant to Montalvo’s Amadís. The culture of Montalvo’s Amadís, with its exaggerated religious rhetoric and rarefied standards of courtliness, has rejected Algaba (who was born in Spain), and Algaba is happy to return the favor, refashioning Amadís as a Sephardic hero, one who springs from Iberian tradition but who is free of the restraints of official Spanish culture as propagated by the courts and controlled by the censors of the Catholic Monarchs.

Works cited

  • Armistead, S. G. “Amadís de Gaula en la literatura oral de los sefardíes.” La pluma es lengua del alma: Ensayos en honor del E. Michael Gerli. Ed. José Manuel Hidalgo. Newark, DE: Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs, 2011. 27-32.
  • Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel. Don Quixote. Trans. Edith Grossman. New York: Ecco, 2003.
  • Enríquez del Castillo, Diego. Crónica de Enrique IV de Diego Enríquez del Castillo. Ed. Aureliano Sánchez Martín. Valladolid: Secretariado de Publicaciones  Universidad de Valldolid, 1994.
  • Giráldez, Susan. Las sergas de Esplandián y la España de los Reyes Católicos. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.
  • Gutwirth, Eleazar. “The Expulsion from Spain and Jewish Historiography.” Jewish History: Essays in Honour of Chimen Abramsky. London: Peter Halban, 1988. 141-161.
  • Hacker, Joseph. “The Sephardim in the Ottoman Empire in the Sixteenth Century.” The Sephardi Legacy. Vol. 2. 2 vols. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1992. 108-133.
  • Little, William. “Introduction.” The Labors of the Very Brave Knight Esplandían. Trans. William Little. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1992. 1-61.
  • Lunzano, Menahem di. Shete yadot. Jerusalem: [s.n], 1969.
  • Piccus, Jules. “Corrections, Suppressions, and Changes in Montalvo’s Amadís, Book I.” Textures and Meaning: Thirty Years of Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Ed. Leonard Ehrlich et al. Amherst: Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2004. 179-211.
  • Rodríguez de Montalvo, Garci. Amadís de Gaula. Madrid: Cátedra, 1987.
  • —. Sergas de Esplandían. Ed. Carlos Sainz de la Maza. Madrid: Castalia, 2003.
  • Tate, Robert Brian. Ensayos sobre la historiografía peninsular del siglo XV. Madrid: Gredos, 1970.

This post was adapted from “Reading Amadís in Constantinople: the Sephardic as imperial abject,” a paper I gave at the  2011 UC Mediterranean Research Project Fall Workshop: “Mediterranean Empires” on 29 October 2011 at UCLA. [Workshop program] Thanks to the Seminar organizers for their hospitality and support.