Jewish sources in the narrative of Abraham in the General estoria

In a previous post I wrote about the influence of Jewish exegesis in the development of fictionality, that is, those aspects of prose fiction that serve to enhance the as-if function of fiction and make possible the suspension of disbelief required of audiences of fiction. In the past post I discussed examples drawn from the Castilian translation of the Song of Songs included in the General estoria of Alfonso X (r. 1252-1284), a universal history in the Castilian vernacular that relates human history from creation through the reign of Alfonso’s father, Ferdinand III (known since the seventeenth century as ‘The Saint’ and after whom Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley aka ‘The Valley’ is named).

San Fernando Valley Credit: Oakshade, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Here I will examine a few examples drawn from the Abraham cycle of the General Estoria of Alfonso X in which Jewish exegesis appears to shape the Castilian vernacularization of the Vulgate text, paving the way for later Castilian writers in their vernacularization of exempla and other Latin texts, and ultimately, for the development of a more capacious Castilian literary register used to describe fictional worlds.

The work’s prologue spells out the goals of the text: men would like to know the past, present, and the future, but can only know the past. To this end they wrote many books recording the deeds and stories of great men, in which group he includes ‘God, the prophets and the saints, as well as kings, high nobility, knights, and commoners’ (“de Dios e de los profetas e de los santos, e otrossí de los reyes, e de los altos omnes e de las cavallerías e de los pueblos”) (Alfonso X , 1: 8).

The purpose of these positive portraits is exemplary, so that “men might take the example in order to do good,” (“e de los fechos de los malos que recibiessen castigo por se saber guardar de lo non fazer”) (Alfonso X , 1: 8) while the bad deeds of biblical characters serve as a reminder of what not to do. This approach puts the author Moses in same category as Herodotus, Livy, and Josephus:

[I] had them gather many texts and histories of the deeds of antiquity; I selected the truest and the best of those of which I had learned and made this book. And I also had them put in it all the best stories from the Bible, of the great things that happened throughout the world from when it began up until our own times.

ove fecho ayuntar muchos escritos e muchas estorias de los fechos antiguos escogí d’ellos los más verdaderos e los mejores que ý sope e fiz ende fazer este libro. E mandé ý poner todos los fechos señalados tambien de las estorias de la Biblia como de las otras grandes cosas que acaecieron por el mundo desde que fue començado fasta’l nuestro tiempo. (Alfonso X , 1: 8)

It’s El Cid! No, wait….
Charlton Heston as Moses Source: http://www.christianvoice.org.uk/

The truth claims made by the General estoria, as a work of historiography, are more similar to those of the modern novel than they are to those of modern history. Medieval historiography does not aspire to an empirical referentiality. It does not intend to recreate or represent historical events in the same way we have come to expect of modern historiography. Because medieval historiography and biblical narrative both made similar types of truth claims, their combination in a text such as the General estoria is not problematic as it would be today. And because Alfonso’s goal was to produce a universal, rather than eschatological or Christological account the past, the inclusion of pagan Classical, Muslim, and Jewish courses strengthens, rather than compromises, the text’s authority.

In this reading of the second part of the Abraham cycle, my approach has been to observe where the General estoria differs from the Vulgate, and from there where it differs from its most heavily used sources: Petrus Comestor’s Historia Scholastica, Josephus’ Antiquities, and Godfrey of Viterbo’s Pantheon.

As I found in my study of the Jewish sources of the General estoria’s translation of the Song of Songs, the evidence suggests that the compilers of the General estoria rely on Jewish sources in order to develop the fictionality of the narrative; that is, in order to augment and enhance the Vulgate narrative by focusing on aspects that are suggestive of modern ideas of fiction: characterization, motivation, and narrative coherence or continuity.

 

‘Hagar Leaves the House of Abraham’, Peter Paul Rubens, 1615- 1617 Source: http://www.womeninthebible.net/

Our first example of the influence of Jewish exegesis on the General Estoria’s Abraham cycle is in its characterization of Sarah’s servant Hagar. Now pregnant with Abraham’s son Ishmael, while Sarah remains barren, Hagar becomes disdainful and haughty toward her mistress. You can see the sources at number three on your handout.

The Vulgate mentions only that she is disdainful (“despexit dominam suam”) but the General estoria goes into a bit more detail, relating that she ‘began to be unruly and to sniff at her mistress and disdain her words’ (“començó a seer loçana e a despreciar a su señora e desdeñar la su palabra”) (Alfonso X 5:26, 245). Comestor, one of the General Estoria’s most common Christian sources, echoes the Vulgate with out further comment, but the Midrashic sources brought together in Ginzburg’s Legends of the Jews dramatize Hagar’s haughtiness in detail:

When noble matrons came to see Sarah, she was in the habit of urging them to pay a visit to “poor Hagar”, too. The dames would comply with her suggestion, but Hagar would use the opportunity to disparage Sarah. “My lady Sarah,” she would say, “is not inwardly what she appears to be outwardly. She makes the impression of a righteous, pious woman, but she is not, for if she were, how could her childlessness be explained, after so many years of marriage, while I became pregnant at once? (Ginzburg 201)

The Jewish exegete Rashi, whose commentaries were read widely in Spain during Alfonso’s time, also cites this Midrash in his commentary on Genesis.

Sarah and Abraham
Bible traduite en français par Jean de Sy. 15thc. BNF f.14r Source: Bibliotheque Nationale de France http://gallica.bnf.fr

At other times, the compilers enrich the version found in the Vulgate in order to explain the motivations of the characters, just as the Midrash often does. When Abraham and Sarah first arrive in Egypt, the news of Sarah’s beauty travels quickly. The Vulgate reports simply that Pharaoh’s courtiers told him about Sarah. Josephus adds a bit more detail, explaining that the Pharaoh was not content with second hand reports and insisted on meeting Sarah in person (Josephus I.8.1, 27). Comestor and Godfrey of Viterbo are silent, but the General estoria goes into a bit more detail to explain the courtiers’ motives, relating that “When the courtiers of Egypt saw her, they then tried to ingratiate themselves with the king, telling him how they had seen a young lady, a pilgrim, who was very beautiful, and praised her to him quite a bit.” (“los poderosos de Egipto pues que la vieron por engraciarse dixieron al rey cómo vieron allí una manceba que andava como peregrina e era muy fermosa, e alabárongela mucho”) (Alfonso X 5:4, 212). On this detail both Rashi and the thirteenth-century Catalan exegete Nahmanides both state explicitly that the courtiers reported on Sarah’s beauty because they thought the Pharaoh might choose her for his harem, again emphasizing motive.

One of the other concerns of the compilers is to provide more narrative coherence between otherwise discrete episodes of the Old Testament, in order to build a more comprehensive and interrelated storyworld. This is also characteristic of the prose fiction of the late Middle Ages in its development toward the modern short story or novel. The compilers here provide details drawn from Jewish sources that connect episodes that in the Vulgate are unrelated.

Isaac Isaacsz, Pharaoh Returns Sarah to Abraham, 1640. Oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Source: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl

Sarah’s servant Hagar, mother of Ishmael, was given to her as a gift from Pharaoh when she and Abraham left Egypt. This detail is missing from the Vulgate, and Josephus and Comestor likewise do not mention it. The General estoria explains that Hagar was in fact one of the servants given to Abraham and Sarah by Pharaoh:

Among the riches and the servants male and female that King Pharaoh, his ministers and his friends gave to that Abraham and his wife Sarah and his nephew Lot, he gave Sarah, out of the great love he had for her, a young girl servant who was very close to him, and begged her to let him demonstrate his great love for her; and Sarah happily received the servant from him and brought her with her. And this servant was Hagar, of whom we shall speak further on.

E entre las riquezas e los siervos e las siervas que dend sacaron Abraham e Sarra su muger e Lot su sobrino que les dio el rey Faraón e sos privados e sos amigos dio el rey a Sarra por el grand amor que oviera d’ella una sierva mancebiella, e que era muy su privada, e rogóla que le fiziesse algo por el su amor; e Sarra recibiójela de grado, e levósela consigo. E esta sierva fue Agar, de quien fablaremos adelante. (Alfonso X 5:6, 215)

Fragments of the Qumran Genesis Apocrypha Plate 647 1Q20 1Q apGen
Source: http://www.deadseascrolls.org.il/

The text here again works to resolve the gift of Hagar from the Pharaoh to Sara. In the Rabbinic mind, it is to establish legal precedent for the Israelites’ claim to the land of Goshen. But for the compilers of the General estoria, unconcerned about legitimizing Jewish claims to this or that parcel of land, it is about fictional logic; they want to explain why Pharaoh gave Sara a parting gift. In fictional terms, this gesture serves to connect Hagar with the Egypt episode, as well as to deepen Pharaoh’s characterization, as it humanizes the love (lust) that Pharaoh had for Sarah. Furthermore, it uses the reader’s familiarity with Hagar to think ahead to her eventual expulsion and suffering in the wilderness, further deepening the characterization of both servant and mistress. In Jewish sources, the tradition of Pharaoh’s donation of Hagar to Sarah is quite old, first witnessed in the Apocrypha of Genesis in Qumran 1, but the more likely source for the compilers of the General estoria is again the Pirkei de Rabi Eliezer, which describes Hagar not only as a servant of Pharaoh, but as his own daughter by a concubine (Eliezer ben Hyrcanus. 26:2, 190).

 

Pudding
Source: https://silk.com/

By way of conclusion, we must say that these examples are suggestive, but not yet conclusive. The very circumstances of the compilation of the General estoria work against positive identification of its Jewish sources. The compilers often identify Christian and Muslim authorities, while specific Jewish sources aside from the Hebrew Old Testament, or rather the author Moisés, are not. Once in a while the compilers say “the Jews say” or “the Jews believe,” but for the most part they say nothing. Occasionally a when the compilers say “some say” the “some” turns out to be a Jewish source. We have no record of the working habits of the teams who compiled the General estoria and relatively little information about which versions of which exegetical texts a Jewish translator working for Alfonso might have had access to. Still, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. I am increasingly convinced that the compilers made regular use of Jewish exegesis in their adaptations, and further study of the biblical material in the General estoria will teach us more about this aspect of the text’s composition, an aspect that may teach us a great deal about the role of anonymous Jewish intellectuals in the birth of Castilian fiction.

Works Cited

  • Alfonso X. General estoria. Ed. Borja Sánchez-Prieto. 10 vols. Madrid: Fundación José Antonio de Castro, 2009. Print.
  • Eliezer ben Hyrcanus. Los capítulos de Rabbí Eliezer = Pirqê Rabbî ʼElîʻezer. Trans. Miguel. Pérez Fernández. Valencia: Institución S. Jerónimo para la Investigación Bíblica, 1984. Print. Biblioteca midrásica ; 1; Biblioteca midrásica ; 1.
  • Josephus, Flavius. Antiguedades de los judíos. Trans. Alfonso Ropero Berzosa. Vol. 1. Barcelona: CLIE, 1988. Print.

This post is a version of a paper I wrote for a session on Jewish sources in the Biblical translations in the General estoria for the Cultural “Symbiosis” International Research Consortium: Humanities, Ideas, and Power in Motion (Sevilla, May 16-18, 2017) organized by Francisco Peña Fernández (UBC Kelowna). Many thanks to my research partner David Navarro (Texas State San Marcos), who read the paper when I was not able to attend.

Rabbis, a Spanish Biblical History, and the Roots of Vernacular Fiction

Translate this.

Translate this. [photo: Bible Leaf. Vulgate Bible. France. Circa 1150. source: Graduate Theologial Union]

The rise of fictional literature in medieval Europe coincides with the emergence of vernacular literatures. Writers such as Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Don Juan Manuel are noted for localizing regional fictional narratives, ‘dressing’ them in local geography, cultural practice, and especially vernacular language. The General Estoria, [see last post on Jewish Exegesis in the biblical translations found in the General Estoria] composed by Alfonso X ‘the learned’ (1252-1284) is a universal history spanning from creation to the reign of Alfonso’s father, Fernando III (who eventually lent his same to the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles). It includes a series of translations from the Latin Vulgate bible into Castilian, the vernacular language of the court. In these Castilian translations of biblical narratives pressed into the service of court history, we can observe some of the earliest developments of a vernacular fictionality, some of which have their roots in the Jewish exegesis of the middle ages.

The translation of Biblical texts into the European vernaculars was one important laboratory for medieval fiction. Alfonso’s translations of biblical narratives drew on Jewish biblical commentaries that sought to bring Biblical language (and the reality it represented) in line with local, contemporary life of Jewish communities. As such, it was a model for literary fiction in that it strove to take material, ideas, and worlds described in classical language, and make them relevant to contemporary culture and daily life.

Bible as history paves the way for fiction

Hardly photographic [Renoir, Chestnut Trees in Bloom (1881) Source: wikimedia commons]

Hardly photographic
[Renoir, Chestnut Trees in Bloom (1881) Source: wikimedia commons]

Readers of medieval history did not expect histories to be empirically correct representations of historical events. Rather, they looked to them to provide stories of great deeds of the past told in an entertaining and convincing fashion. In this way, their function was closer to that of the modern historical novel than the modern history book. For us, medieval history writing is a Renoir: moving, inspiring, beautiful, but hardly photographic; we might say the same of Biblical narrative, which only the most fundamentalist regard as accurate in the same way they would expect from a history book. For this reason, it was far less problematic in the thirteenth century to include biblical texts in works of historiography than it would be today. In order to make this biblical history come alive in the vernacular, Alfonso’s translators brought to bear the tools and methods of Jewish exegesis, in ways that would have implications for the development of vernacular prose fiction.

It seems counterintuitive that a Christian king should resort to Jewish biblical commentaries in order to render the Bible into Spanish. It was not as if there were a shortage of Christian scholars who were capable of translating the Latin Vulgate into Spanish. Why bring Rabbis into the picture? Alfonso had long demonstrated a keen interest in scriptural and exegetical traditions of his subject religious minorities. His nephew Don Juan Manuel, himself an important voice in early Castilian literature, relates the following:

He ordered translations of the Muslim scriptures…. also he ordered translations of the Jewish scriptures and even their Talmud and another discipline that the Jews keep hidden that they call Kabbalah. He also translated into Castilian all laws Ecclesiastical and Secular. What more can I tell you? No man can say how much good this noble king has done to grow and illuminate knowledge (Juan Manuel 2: 510–520; Alvar 49).

Alfonso ordered translations of the major sacred texts of Islam and Judaism. He did so not in order to convert his subject Jews and Muslims, but to satisfy his curiosity about the world and its history. His court was a major center of translation of Arabic science into Castilian, and he employed Christian, Muslim, and Jewish scholars in these projects. After his death he enjoyed far greater renown for his patronage of science and arts than he ever did as a statesman.

By Alfonso’s time, Castile had long been an important center for Biblical translation, and Jewish translators often worked alongside their Christian counterparts to produce these translations. There are numerous episodes, motifs, and methodological earmarks of the work of Jewish exegetes in the biblical material in the General estoria (Peña Fernández). Alfonso’s translators explain aspects of the material world of the bible in contemporary terms, a tactic prevalent in the work of important medieval Jewish exegetes such as Rashi of Troyes and Abraham ibn Ezra of Navarre, both of whom brought examples from the contemporary cultural life of the community in order to give new relevance and meaning to the biblical storyworld. In my previous post on the General Estoria, I mentioned a few examples from the Song of Songs that you can read here.

The contribution of Jewish biblical commentary to the development of fictional worlds

Rashi

It’s in there [Guillaume de Paris, Postillae maiores totius anni cum glossis et quaestionibus (Lyon, 1539) . souce: wikipedia]

How does this kind of evidence point up the specific contribution of Jewish exegesis to the development of vernacular fictionality in the General Estoria? While Christian exegesis focuses on subordinating the Old Testament narrative to a Christological interpretation, Midrash, and Jewish exegesis more broadly, is more concerned with filling narrative gaps (which abound in the narrative sections of the Old Testament) and explaining motives and emotional states. As such it is far more aligned with what critics commonly imagine to be the goals of fiction: plausible representations of things that could be real, but are not.

Jewish exegesis is also in large part concerned with making scripture and earlier commentaries more relevant to the lives and realities of contemporary Jewish communities. To this end they often employ the vernacular to explain an object, animal, or other realia whose meaning is unclear in the Hebrew or Aramaic. The twelfth century exegete Rashi of Troyes in particular, is well-known for his use of medieval French to explain difficult etymons and concepts, and it is perhaps no accident that he was working at the dawn of vernacular literary composition in France, when Troubadours began to sing and authors of Romances began to write in French and not Latin.

Like translations, exegetical texts are doing the work of bringing the text over, closer to the lived realities of the audience. Just as a translator is concerned with rendering a source text into a target language, an exegete is concerned with rendering the world of the text into the target vernacular culture, the bridge between classical traditions.

Translation is a form of interpretation, and just as biblical commentary expands the meaning of scripture and aligns the text with the reality of new generations of readers, the translation of scripture into the vernacular itself a form of biblical commentary, one that reflects the values and practices of the current generation.

True, but not Real [Lancelot and Guinevere, north-eastern France or Flanders (St Omer or Tournai), 1316, Additional 10293, f. 199. source: British Library, Medieval Manuscripts blog]

True, but not Real
[Lancelot and Guinevere, north-eastern France or Flanders (St Omer or Tournai), 1316, Additional 10293, f. 199. source: British Library, Medieval Manuscripts blog]

How is this significant for the development of fiction? One of fiction’s defining characteristics is its lack of what philosophers and literary critics call ‘referentiality’; put simply, it says things that are not real. Good fiction is able to say things as if they were real, and have us believe that they are in some way true, even if they don’t refer to real events. In the middle ages, this true-but-not-real quality applied equally to tales of knights and ladies, to history books, and even to biblical stories when they were included in history books. The idea that medievals were hyper-literalist scriptural fundamentalists who believed in the perfect referentiality of scripture is more a product of our own cultural moment than of medieval culture.

Vernacular fictional worlds

 

Writing in the vernacular catalyzes the make-believe function of fiction, because the familiar sounds of everyday speech (even if not one’s native language) make the alternate reality of the fictional world more plausible, more believable, and more easily provoke the suspension of disbelief key to the audience’s participation in the covenant of fiction. This vernacularization enhances the ‘as-if’ nature of fiction, establishing more vivid points of reference between the fictional and ‘real’ words. Medieval Jewish exegetes knew this, and took pains to map the Biblical and ancient rabbinical worlds onto contemporary vernacular culture, making frequent use of the vernacular languages they spoke in order to do so. This was also the case in the arts: medieval biblical illuminations of stories set in the ancient fertile crescent feature characters dressed in contemporary costume. Alfonso’s translators took a page from their book in striving to make biblical texts relevant to the concerns and sensibilities of Alfonso’s court, a court that strove to elevate the vernacular of its subjects to the level of a classical tradition. In so doing, I believe they sowed seeds of what would later become modern fictionality’s attention to realistic detail and empirical plausibility in creating new worlds for new readers.

David, who's your tailor? [Photo: David loads provisions in the Maciejowski Bible, New York, Morgan Library Ms M. 638, f. 27 Source: wikimedia commons]

David, who’s your tailor?
[Photo: David loads provisions in the Maciejowski Bible, New York, Morgan Library Ms M. 638, f. 27 Source: wikimedia commons]

Works Cited

Alvar, Manuel. “Didactismo e integración en la General estoriaI (estudio del Génesis).” La lengua y la literatura en tiempos de Alfonso X. Actas del Congreso internacional (Murcia, 5-10 de marzo de 1984. Murcia: Universidad de Murcia, 1985. 25–78. Print.

Juan Manuel. Obras Completas. Madrid: Gredos, 1982. Print.

Peña Fernández, Francisco. “La Relatividad de Las Cosas: Heterodoxy and Midrashim in the First Chapters of Alfonso X’s General Estoria.” eHumanista (2013): 551. Print.

This post is a version of a paper I gave at the conference “Theorizing Medieval European Literature”, Centre for Medieval Literature, (University of York/University of Southern Denmark) at York, July 2, 2016. Thanks very much for the Centre’s directors, Profs. Elizabeth Tyler, Lars Boje Mortensen, and Christian Høgel, for the invitation.

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

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

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

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

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

General estoria prologo

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

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

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

Corpus comparison of General estoria, Vulgate, and Tanakh at the Biblia Medieval website (http://corpus.bibliamedieval.es/)

Corpus comparison of General estoria, Vulgate, and Tanakh at the Biblia Medieval website
(http://corpus.bibliamedieval.es/)

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

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

luis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vernacularization

Wine red head wrap by J. Frassini (http://jfrassini.com/wine-red-head-wrap/)

Wine red head wrap by J. Frassini (http://jfrassini.com/wine-red-head-wrap/)

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

Turned bowl by Vancouver Island artist Dan Jerowsky (http://djerowsky.bravepages.com/)

Turned bowl by Vancouver Island artist Dan Jerowsky (http://djerowsky.bravepages.com/)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

  • Block, Richard, ed. and trans. Ibn Ezra’s Commentary on The Song of Songs. Abraham Ibn Ezra. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion, 1982.
  • Ekman, Erik. “Translation and Translatio: ‘Nuestro Latín’ in Alfonso El Sabio’s General Estoria.” Bulletin of Spanish Studies (2015): 1–16. Print.
  • Enrique-Arias, Andrés, ed. Biblia Medieval. <http://www.bibliamedieval.es>
    18 October 2015. Web.
  • Fishbane, Michael A, ed. Song of Songs : The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2015. Print.
  • Hailperin, Herman. Rashi and the Christian Scholars. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1963. Print.
  • Morreale, Margherita. “Vernacular Scriptures in Spain.” The Cambridge History of the Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969. 465–491. Print.
  • Shereshevsky, Esra. “Hebrew Traditions in Peter Comestor’s ‘Historia Scholastica’: I. Genesis.” The Jewish Quarterly Review 59.4 (1969): 268–289. Print.
  • Smalley, Beryl. The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages. Vol. 3rd. Oxford, England: B. Blackwell, 1983. Print.
  • Wacks, David A. “Between Secular and Sacred: Abraham Ibn Ezra and the Song of Songs.” Wine, Women and Song: Hebrew and Arabic Literature of Medieval Iberia. Ed. Michelle M. Hamilton, Sarah J. Portnoy, and David A. Wacks. Newark, DE: Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs, 2004. 47–58. http://hdl.handle.net/1794/8233

This entry is a version of a paper I gave (virtually) at the 2015 Texas Medieval Association, in a session on “Iberian Jewish Exegesis and the Alphonsine Scriptorium organized by Prof. David Navarro and Moderated by Prof. Yasmine Beale-Rivaya (both of Texas State – San Marcos). Prof. Navarro and Prof. Francisco Peña (UBC Kelowna) also contributed papers. The presenters form part of an international group of scholars working on the Biblical material in the General estoria.

 

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.

 

Ethnic Polemic in Medieval Spain: Arabiyya, Shu’ubiyya, and Ibraniyya

Summary: In the Abbasid-era (800s-900s) authors writing in Arabic joined a debate between those who identified as ethnically Arab and those who identified as Persian. This debate was reproduced in al-Andalus (1000s) between Arab and non-Arab Spanish Muslims. Jewish writers in al-Andalus then adapted this debate to the question of the relative superiority of Arabic and Hebrew as a literary language for the Jewish communities of Spain. After the Christian conquest of Spain, Arabic was replaced by Castilian at court. Nonetheless, Hebrew writers continued to battle the specter of Arabic’s literary legacy even as they faced the new, more immediate threat of Hebrew’s extinction by vernacularization and eventually by mass conversions of Spanish Jews to Christianity.

Arabiyya: Arab superiority in a Multiethnic Islam

The Arabic language boasts a rich poetic tradition that predates Islam by some centuries. The revelation of the Qur’an in Arabic was further proof (for the Muslim community) of the superiority of their language, and by extension, their culture. When the community of Islam began to grow beyond the borders of the Arabian peninsula where Arabic was a native language, large numbers of Persians, Assyrians, Berbers, and members of other ethnic and linguistic groups began to adopt Arabic as their literary language. Arabic became an imperial language used by authors from a variety of ethnic and linguistic groups. In this pluralist Islamic society, during the first centuries of the Abbasid Caliphate (beginning in 762 CE), there developed a debate over the relationship between language and ethnic identity that was critical of the doctrine of Arabiyya (also the word for the Arabic language), the idea that the superiority of the Arabic language flowed from the superiority of the Arabs themselves, a fact proven by their being chosen to receive the Qur’an.

Arabic comes from here

Medieval Arab grammarians, attempting to clarify the meaning of obscure passages of the Qur’an, often visited Bedouin tribes to do linguistic fieldwork. The dialects of the Bedouins were considered by the city dwellers to be purer and closer to the language of the Qur’an. This idea was in contradiction to the idea that the language of the tribe of Quraysh, of which the Prophet Muhammad was a member, was the superior dialect of Arabic at the time the Qur’an was received. In order to solve this dilemma, the grammarian Abu Zakariyya Yahya bin Ziyad al-Farra’ (d. 822 CE), a native of Kufa (in present-day Iraq), explained that the dialect of the tribe of Quraysh, of which the Prophet Muhammad was a member, was superior because the Qurayshis were in constant contact with different Bedouin tribes. This way, he reasoned, the Qurayshis were able to select the best features from each of the Bedouin dialects in forming their own poetic language:

We said: In the same way they [the Qurayshis] were accustomed to hear from the tribes of the Arabs their dialects; so they could choose from every dialect that which was the best in it. So their speech became elegant and nothing of the more vulgar forms of speech was mixed up with it.
(Kahle, “Arabic” 69)

Shu’ubiyya: The response of the non-Arabs to Arabiyya

During the Abbasid Caliphate, Muslims of Persian background, many of whom were accomplished grammarians and poets in Arabic, criticized the doctrine of Arabiyya, instead advocating for the superiority of non-Arabs. This was the shu’ubiyya (from Arabic sha’b, ‘people’ or ‘nation’), the ethnic polemic between Arabs and non-Arabs. Shu’ubi writers attacked Arabs for their rustic origins as desert nomads, while they prided themselves as representatives of a cosmoplitan urbane culture that predated Islam. Thus the poet Abu Sa’id al-Rustami wrote in the tenth century CE:

The Arabs boast of being master of the world and commanders of peoples.
Why do they not rather boast of being skillful sheep and camel herders?
If I am asked about my descent —says the same poet—I am of the tribe of Rustam
but my song is of Lu’ayy b. Ghalib.
I am the one who is publicly and secretly known
as a Persian whom Arabianism (al-ta`rib) drew to itself.
I know well when calling the parole
that my origin is clear and my wood hard.
(Goldziher, Muslim 150)

Although the language of Abbasid era Shu’ubiyya speaks to ethnic origin, what was actually at stake for the writers and their audiences was the question of class and of access to prestigious administrative positions at court and in the Abbasid adminstration. The elites of Abbasid society largely claimed Arab descent, while the great mass of middle-class functionaries more often identified as Persian. Ultimately, the Shu’ubiyya debate was not about Persians being cultured and Arabs being primitive nomads, it was about gaining access to good white-collar jobs (Norris, “Shu’ubiyyah” 31).

Sassanid-era (Persian) warrior

In al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) this debate was reproduced by writers who identified as descendants of the Arab elite that led the 711 invasion of Visigothic Hispania, or as descendants of the various other ethnic groups that lived in the Iberian Peninsula (Hispano-Romans, Visigoths, Franks, Slavs, Basques) and who converted to Islam and adopted Arabic as their literary language.

The author Abu Amir ibn García al-Bashkunsi (i.e. ‘el vascuense’, the Basque) was one such author who resuscitated the shu’ubiyya debate in tenth century al-Andalus. In his case, the ruling class of the kingdom of Denia considered itself to be of pure Arab lineage and discriminated against those it considered to be of non-Arab stock. Ibn García himself, as his name suggests, was born a Christian in Basque country, but was taken captive as a child and brought to al-Andalus where he converted to Islam and received a classical Arabic education. His shu’ubi treatise (ca. 1050) harshly criticizes the rulers of Denia for their ethnic arrogance and their rustic origins:

Your mother, O Arabs, was a slave to our mother. If you deny this you will be found unjust. There is no excess in remonstrating, for we never tended monkeys nor did we weave mantles, nor did we eat wild herbs; there is no cutting off your relationship with Hājar; you were our slaves, servants, enfranchised ones, and valets… (Monroe, Shu’ubiyya 24)

[The non-Arabs] are clear, grave, not camel herders or diggers tilling the soil; great kings, not burners of camel dung for fuel…. These non-Arabs were warriors, not guardians of palm branches or planters of palm shoots…

…their drink was wine, and their food roasted meat, not the mouthful of colocynth seeds in the deserts or the eggs of lizards taken from their nests. (Monroe, Shu’ubiyya 25-26)

Colocynth

Jewish Arabiyya and Ibraniyya in al-Andalus

During Ibn García’s lifetime a parallel discussion was taking place within the Jewish communities of al-Andalus over the relative merits of Arabic and Hebrew. The Jewish communities of al-Andalus (Muslim-ruled Spain) were highly Arabized, but many were also conversant in the Romance dialects of the Iberian Peninsula. In addition to their participation in the Arabic-language culture of the times, Andalusi Jews also left behind a tremendous legacy of Hebrew-language learning ranging from Rabbinical treatises to secular poetry.

Some Andalusi Jewish writers, such as the poet Moses ibn Ezra, espoused a kind of Jewish Arabiyya. Ibn Ezra held Arabic to be a flawless model for Hebrew to follow. In his treatise on Hebrew poetics, Ibn Ezra argues that Arabic poetics are the benchmark for Hebrew poets. He even goes as far as saying that Biblical Hebrew poetry at its best sounds like Arabic poetry. Ibn Ezra’s poetic ideal is a sort of amalgam of Arabic poetic sensibility and Hebrew language:

And the poetry of Moses was true and kingly,
Like an Arabic poem, in words of sweetness.
And one speaking in the language of the Jews,
Spoken in perfect symmetry,
And the power of the speech of Araby
With its turns of phrase and eloquence.
Delightful sayings, in the Arabic tongue or the Hebrew,
And wisdom to grasp on every side, from each direction. (Allony, “Reaction” 35)

Even after Christian monarchs conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula, Arabic continued to be a prestigious language of secular and Jewish learning, particularly in the fields of grammar, poetics, and philosophy. A select elite of Jewish intellectuals living in Christian Iberia continued to study Arabic and to produce learned treatises in Arabic long after it ceased to be the language of government. The city of Toledo was conquered by Alfonso VI in 1085 CE, yet nearly a century and a half later Toledan writer Jacob ben Eleazar (fl. ca. 1220) would complete a treatise on Hebrew grammar, Kitab al-Kamil, in Arabic.

A contemporary of Ben Eleazar named Judah al-Harizi, who was a translator of Arabic literature into Hebrew as well as an author in his own right, begins his book Tahkemoni with a lament for the sorry condition of Hebrew language learning in the Jewish communities of the Arab world (including Spain), and calls for a Hebrew renaissance by which Jewish authors might lay claim to the literary greatness exemplified in the Hebrew Bible:

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. They embraced the bosom of an alien. They desired the wife of a stranger. They kissed her bosom, for stolen waters were sweet to them. Their hearts were seduced when they saw how excellent was the poetry that Hagar, Sarai’s Egyptian handmaiden had borne. And Sarai was barren!  (al-Harizi, Tahkemoni 32)

Around the same time in Toledo, Jacob ben Eleazar (author of the Kitab al-Kamil) wrote a collection of stories (Sefer Meshalim, ‘Book of Tales’), and like al-Harizi includes in his introduction a refutation of Arabic’s superiority and assertion of Hebrew’s literary greatness. He explains that the reason he wrote his Book of Tales was to demonstrate Hebrew’s virtues and to silence the doubters:

Said Jacob ben Eleazar: The reason for this book of tales, and the composition therein of my words, is because the learned amongst the Arabs were troubling the Holy Tongue, who nonetheless boasted against it in their insolence, saying: ‘it should be fitting to write in our language every tale!’ They were challenging Our Language, saying: ‘we will prevail!’….

Whereupon I began to compose, saying:

You would mock me, saying: ‘is not the Holy Tongue crude?’

But no! She is a giant who silences all others, run to her and do not falter, whether elegy or invective, or saw or anecdote. (Ben Eleazar, Love 14-15)

In these pro-Hebrew texts (Ibraniyya is the Arabic word for Hebrew), authors drew on some of the resources of the shu’ubiyya, but the context of their argument was quite different. Abbasid and Andalusi shu’ubi writers wrote in the dominant, official language of state that was common to both Arabs and non-Arabs. By contrast, Jewish writers of the Ibraniyya wrote in Hebrew, which was read exclusively by their Jewish peers. Their debate was internal to the Jewish community. They were fighting to determine which language would emerge victorious as the prestige language of secular learning in the Jewish communities.

Prato Haggadah, Spain 14th c. (image housed at Jewish Theological Seminary)

In a sense this debate was a rhetorical exercise. Thanks to the efforts of the Ibn Tibbon family of translators, Hebrew boasted a large repertory of secular scientific and philosophical texts brought over from Arabic originals (mid-twelfth to the early fourteenth centuries). The Ibn Tibbons were Spanish Jews who migrated to Provence during the mid-twelfth century, when the Almohad invasion of al-Andalus made life difficult for certain Andalusi Jewish communities. They translated scores of important works of grammar, Aristotelian philosophy, and science into Hebrew for diffusion among the Jewish communities of Europe and the Mediterranean who lived in countries where Arabic was not widely known. Thus Hebrew became a language of secular learning as well as of Rabbinics in the region (Robinson, “Ibn Tibbon”).

Ibraniyya after Arabic: The Threat of the vernacular

What is curious is that by the late thirteenth century, authors living in Christian Spain such as Isaac ibn Sahula were still waging poetic war against Arabic, which by now was no longer a productive secular literary language in Christian Iberia (though colloquial Arabic continued to be spoken, especially in Valencia, well into the sixteenth century). Stil, Ibn Sahula continues the Ibraniyya debate in the introduction to his collection of tales and anecdotes, Meshal Haqadmoni (‘Tale of the Old Timer,’ ca. 1285).

I shall explicate the reason for [this book’s] publication,
Upon God’s holy mountain [i.e. the Hebrew language] rests its foundation,
to declare its pure and holy nature is its purpose
to preach of the compelling greatness of Hebrew speech,
To show the nations and their generals its beauty.
For I saw that many had dulled its golden rhetoric,
Preferring instead all kind of other books:
The wisdom of the Greeks and the tales of the Arabs (Ibn Sahula, Meshal 10)

Ibn Sahula’s desire to ‘show the nations’ harkens back to the origins of the Shu’ubiyya debate, which emphasizes national or ethnic difference rather than linguistic. In the Jewish context, there are no ‘nations or generals’ to witness the beauty of the Hebrew language in Ibn Sahula’s book: his audience is exclusively Jewish. As in the case of al-Harizi, the debate is internal, a struggle to ensure that when Jews wrote works of poetry, philosophy, or science, that they did so in Hebrew and not Arabic.

"Translate this" --Alfonso X (1252-1284)

But was Arabic still a viable candidate in 1285 in Christian Castile? Ross Brann was written that by this time writers such as Ibn Sahula were fighting against the ‘ghost of Arabic,’ and that their aim was nationalistic, not linguistic (Brann, Compunctious 123). It is also possible that they were thinking about Spanish while writing against Arabic. In the second half of the thirteenth century, Alfonso X ‘The Learned’ of Castile-León funded a massive initiative to translate Arabic works of philosophy and science into Castilian (not Latin), with the aim to raise the prestige of the Castilian language to a level appropriate to the court of a king who dreamt of becoming Holy Roman Emperor. Though Castilian never gained much traction as a literary language in Spain’s Jewish communities (Wacks, “Toward”), Spanish Jewish authors were fluent speakers of Castilian and the other Romance dialects of the Peninsula, and were familiar with the vernacular literature of their times. The later examples of Ibraniyya may well have been using the Arabic trope as a foil for Castilian as a potential rival for Hebrew.

Ultimately, the threat to Hebrew’s fate on the Peninsula was not to be the adoption of Castilian as a Jewish literary language, but the mass conversion of Jews into Christians who then ceased to write in Hebrew (with a few interesting exceptions). In the early fifteenth century, the poet Solomon de Piera derides these converso poets as “flies who buzz around the horns of a buffalo, or monkeys who slide their hands fruitlessly up and down flutes” (Targarona Borrás, “Carta” 180). Eventually literary Hebrew was dealt the death blow of the Expulsion, which would relegate the study of Hebrew to Christian universities such as Salamanca and Alcalá.

 

Bibliography

  • Allony, Nehemiah. “The Reaction of Moses Ibn Ezra to `arabiyya.” Bulletin of the Institute of Jewish Studies 3 (1975): 19-40.
  • Ben Eleazar, Jacob. The Love Stories of Jacob Ben Eleazar (1170-1233?). Ed. Yonah David. Tel Aviv: Ramot Publishing, 1992.
  • Brann, Ross. The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Medieval Spain. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1991.
  • Goldziher, Ignác. Muslim studies. Trans. C.K. Barber & S.M. Stern. Chicago: Aldine, 1968.
  • Ibn Sahula, Isaac ben Solomon. Meshal Haqadmoni: Fables from the Distant Past. Portland: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004.
  • Kahle, Paul. “The Arabic Readers of the Koran.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 8.2 (1949): 65-71.
  • Monroe, James T. The Shu’ubiyya in al-Andalus: The Risala of Ibn García and Five Refutations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.
  • Norris, H.T. “Shu’ubiyyah in Arabic Literature.” ’Abbasid Belles-Lettres. Ed. Julia Ashtiany et Ashtiany. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1990. 31-47.
  • Robinson, James. “The Ibn Tibbon family: a dynasty of translators in medieval Provence.” Be’erot Yitzhak: Studies in Memory of Isadore Twersky. Ed. Jay Michael Harris. Cambridge: Harvard University Center for Jewish Studies, 2005. 193-224.
  • Roth, Norman. “Jewish Reactions to the ʿArabiyya and the Hebrew Renaissance in Spain.” Journal of Semitic Studies 28.1 (1983): 63-84.
  • Targarona Borrás, Judit. “Carta inédita de Selomoh de Piera al Rab Abraham ben Yishaq Ha-Levi.” Miscelánea de Estudios Árabes y Hebraicos 49 (2000): 165-189.
  • Wacks, David. “Toward a History of Hispano-Hebrew Literature of Christian Iberia in the Romance Context.” eHumanista 14 (2010): 178-209.

This post was written with support from the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at Stanford University, where I will deliver a talk on this subject (13 October 2011).

[Conference Paper] Recycling the Troubadours in Hebrew: Todros Abulafia, Hebrew Troubadour at the Court of Alfonso X

In a previous post I discussed two poems of Todros Abulafia in the context of the troubadour poetry of his day. This post is the text of an academic conference paper that grew out of the previous post on Abulafia. I presented this paper at this year’s meeting of the Mid-America Medieval Association (MAMA) in Kansas City, Missouri (26 Feb 2011). Your comments are welcome. You can also view this paper as a slidecast (slides + audio) in .mov format.

MLA Citation format: Wacks, David A. Recycling the Troubadours in Hebrew: Todros Abulafia, Hebrew Troubadour at the Court of Alfonso X. 35th Annual Meeting of the Mid-America Medieval Association (MAMA). University of Missouri, Kansas City. 26 February 2011. Conference paper.

Many of you know a lot about trouabadour poetry – in fact most of you probably know a lot more about it than I will ever know. But I’ll bet that fewer of you are familiar with the activities of the troubadours in Spain, and even fewer with the Hebrew poets of Spain, and that is where I would like to take you today, to the crossroads of medieval Hebrew and troubadour poetry, in Toledo, Spain, in the late thirteenth century. The Hebrew poet in question is named Todros ben Meir Halevi Abulafia. We’ll call him Abulafia. He was a notable of the Jewish community of Toledo, which at the time was a very well established community boasting a centuries long history. During Muslim rule, Jewish courtiers had served the Muslim rulers of Tulaytula, and after the Christian conquest, under Christian monarchs as well.

Abulafia was active at the court Alfonso the tenth of Castile, known as ‘the Learned,’ who reigned from 1252-1284.  During Alfonso’s reign there were several court Jews who served as financiers, outfitters, tax farmers, and the like. He himself served Alfonso as a tax farmer and was a sort of notorious man about town, womanizer, and partier who did not hesitate to report on, and probably embellish, his exploits in his poetry. Aside from his choice of language, what sets Abulafia apart from his counterparts writing in Provencal and Galician-Portuguese is Todros’ status as a member of a diasporic religious minority. As such, he is oriented toward two symbolic centers: the biblical homeland of Zion, or Palestine, and the ancestral hostland of Sefarad, the Hebrew word for the Iberian Peninsula.  This dual orientation is helpful in understanding why he writes in Hebrew, and how he adapts contemporary poetic practice into his verse.

In al-Andalus, which is the Arabic word for the Iberian Peninsula, the Jewish elites participated quite fully in secular intellectual culture. They received classical Arabic educations, mastered the works of the Arab poets, and wrote treatises on philosophy, the sciences, even Jewish exegesis, in classical Arabic. They were on equal footing with their Muslim and Christian peers in the official language of the dominant culture, a language that boasted a very prestigious poetic tradition spanning centuries and drawing on the brightest minds of the Muslim world, which at the time reached from The Atlantic in the West to the Indus River in the East.

The ideology that underpinned Jewish participation in the dominant poetic culture of Islam was the Quranic doctrine of dhimma, or protected religious minorities. Under Islam, Jews and Christians were guaranteed the right to practice their religions, provided they paid the jizya, or poll tax, and complied with certain social and economic restrictions. Like any other doctrine, it was applied variously and was in no way a blanket guarantee of the well-being of every Jew or every Christian in a Muslim kingdom, but it did provide a robust juridical framework for the treatment of Jews and Christians in al-Andalus, and justified their participation in all aspects of public life excepting Islamic scholarship and leadership.

In the sphere of literature this meant that Jewish writers in al-Andalus were active at court in the dominant language of the court. This included poetry, and Jewish poets were regularly included in medieval anthologies of Andalusi poetry.This is the diasporic moment in al-Andalus, when Sephardic poets begin to adapt Arabic poetic practice in Hebrew, and invent a diasporic poetics with a double orientation:  the symbolic homeland Zion gave them their words, drawn directly from the Hebrew Bible. Their hostland al-Andalus gave them another layer of poetics, and they drew freely and effortlessly from the Andalusi repertory of imagery, rhetorical figures, metrics, and poetic practice. The result was a thickly intertextual, intercultural poetic corpus. For Jewish audiences, Andalusi Hebrew poetry resonated with both the synagogue and the court.

This is the poetic tradition that Abulafia inherited. However, he lived in Christian Iberia and worked at the court of a Christian monarch. Under Christianity, the situation was different. Unlike their Andalusi grandparents, Sephardic Jews under Christian kings were not typically familiar with the classical language of the dominant culture. In the 13th century, even in the face of the vernacular revolution taking place at the court where Abulafia worked, Latin was the prestige classical language, the language of the Church and of most intellectual activity in Western Christendom. Sephardic Jews were not a part of this activity.

In the context of Christian government, the Andalusi literary legacy of Sephardic Jews was foreign. Prestigious, perhaps, but ultimately foreign to the great majority of Christian elites, who valued Arabic learning but were most likely to consume it in Latin or Castilian translations. The diasporic moment had changed, and the cultural terms of engagement needed to be renegotiated.At this very moment of renegotiation, a new Romance vernacular poetic practice is emergent in Castile. Just as Sephardic poets are no longer practitioners of the dominant intellectual tradition, they are becoming practitioners of the emergent poetic tradition, by virtue of their romance-language nativity. While to us this may seem like a boon, to them it was a conundrum. Before Abulafia’s time, Andalusi Jewish were both connoisseurs and producers of Arabic poetry. Nonetheless, when writing in Hebrew they sometimes made a show of denigrating Arabic tradition, in an effort to exalt Hebrew.

In the Andalusi context this bluster was mostly a rhetorical trope that authors deployed as a kind of accessus in introductions to works Hebrew poetry and prose. Though motivated by a kind of linguistic proto-nationalism, it was ultimately the kind of good-natured brinksmanship one might read in medieval debate poetry of any tradition. But in Christian Iberia, this exaltation of Hebrew poetics took on a new urgency, now that Sephardic intellectuals were estranged from the dominant intellectual tradition. It may well have been sour grapes: in Toledo, for example, between the Christian conquest of 1085 and the beginning of the reign of Alfonso X in 1252, there was no thriving poetic scene in which a Jewish poet might participate. By the late thirteenth century, Poetic production in Arabic outside of Granada and Valencia had virtually ceased, and Sephardic poets had not, for whatever reason, taken to composing courtly poetry in the vernacular.

Even Abulafia, whom his Jewish peers considered a notorious assimilationist and who did not hesitate to socialize, and fraternize, with Christians, he did not, as far as we know, compose in the vernacular. For him it is not really an option to adopt the poetic language of the moment. Perhaps the vernacular had not yet achieved enough prestige  or historical weight for Jewish poets to adopt it wholeheartedly. It may be that Jewish poets, as a diasporic minority, felt insecure about adopting the dominant poetic language because they had no history of participating in Latin intellectual life. Perhaps the admonishments of their grandparents’ generation kept them away. In any event, it was not happening.

Abulafia’s renegotiation of the Sephardic diasporic poetics was going to be different. And, while he did not compose in the vernacular he did participate in vernacular poetics. By this I mean that he expressed his orientation toward hostland poetics by adapting the themes, habits of expression, and poetic ideologies of his peers who composed in the Romance vernaculars. As we will see, Todros creates a new poetic voice that grows naturally from both the Andalusi Hebrew and vernacular troubadour traditions of courtly love. Some of this innovation is original and probably unrelated to what was going on in vernacular troudabour poetry. Todros was very creative in his use of the stock imagery and poetic strategies of Andalusi Hebrew tradtion. But in some cases it is very clear that he is in some ways, a Hebrew troubadour.

This should come as no surprise, as Alfonso’s court was an important center of troubadour poetry. Some of the poets that served at his court include Bonifaci Calvo, Arnaut Catalan, Guiraut Riquer, Peire Cardenal, Cerverí de Girona, and Airas Nunes (Alvar 1977; O’Callaghan 1993: 144). Alfonso regularly employed troubadours as a sort of propaganda corps. Galician-Portuguese troubadours regularly promoted Alfonso’s various political projects on the peninsula, while those writing in Provencal publicized designs on the Holy Roman Imperial throne (Beltrán 2006: 155-56).

On a more formal and specific level, Abulafia adapted some of the same generic conventions used by the troubadours. The Spanish hebraist Ángel Sáenz-Badillos (1996) has demonstrated that some of Abulafia’s invective poetry is structurally and thematically very similar to the tensós and sirventeses of the troubadours among whom he moved at court. The one critic to thoroughly tackle the question of Todros’ involvement with vernacular poetics is Aviva Doron, who in 1989 published a Hebrew language monograph titled A Poet in the King’s Court (Incidentally, in the entire WorldCat system, only a single copy of Doron’s book is available, from Karl Ebershard University in Germany).

Doron deals with a few different aspects of Abulafia’s work, focusing mainly on his poems dedicated to Alfonso and his love poetry. Her main points of reference are Carlos Alvar’s books on troubadouresque poetry in Spain. She makes some interesting points about Abulafia’s take on courtly love, but I would like to build on her observations today and go into more specific detail about how Abulafia’s poetry is in dialogue with the troubadouresque discourse of courtly love. His adaptation of the conventions of fin’amors is where he is at his most innovative, and where he least resembles his predecessors in Hebrew poetry.

Two of his poems in particular, numbers 714 and 715 in the authoritative 1932 Hebrew edition of David Yellin express a number of aspects of courtly love unique to troubadouresque fin’amor and absent from Andalusi Hebrew tradition. In order to better make my point, I choose examples almost exclusively from Provencal and Galician-Portuguese troubadours who also wrote at Alfonso’s court and who may well have known Todros and perhaps even written and recited alongside (or in competition) with him. I have selected a series of quotes expressing commonplaces of troubadouresque fin’amor, or courtly love. In each case, Abulafia follows the lead of the troubadours very closely, and in the final example, as we will see, he takes it to the next level.

In this first example, Bonifacio Calvo, an Italian who wrote in Provencal, performs a standard heresy of courtly love in which he imagines God himself falling in love with his beloved:

Que si plagues amar a dieu / Dompna del mon, avinen plai / Auri’ en leis, que chausid ai (‘if it pleased God to love a woman of the world, he would have a pleasant delight in her whom I have chosen’) (ed. Horan 1960: 34, no. 5, vv. 30-32; trans. Horan 1960: 36)

Abulafias’s heresy is a bit more complex. He imagines a cult of his beloved complete with holidays and a Temple:

My soul celebrates her as a holiday! See how, for her sake my soul sings the name of God! / And so on this holiday I will visit her Temple, and perhaps I will steal a word from her! 
(no. 715, vv. 9-10)

How will I ever choose another, while God himself exalts her? (no. 715, v. 18)

Another commonplace of the fin’amor of the troubadours is the emphasis on the nobility of all aspects of the beloved: her lineage, her conduct, her very soul. Calvo’s example focuses on the conduct of his dompna, or lady:

E·l sieus hontraz chapteners / Es tant genzer dels gensors (‘her honored conduct is so much more noble than the noblest’) (ed. Horan 1960: 24, no. 1, vv. 36-37, trans. Horan 1960: 25)

Abulafia’s example contrasts his indiscrete younger self with his more mature self who realizes the values of nobility in a beloved. Borrows a phrase from the Song of Songs to describe the beloved as an army bearing a standard. It is common in Andalusi Hebrew poetry to describe the beloved using martial imagery, and here Abulafia gives it a courtly twist that is probably reminiscent of the banners used in knightly tournaments. The second example describes three aspects of his lady’s nobility: lineage, and soul:

[When I was young and foolish] I did not distinguish between commoner and high born, or even the daughter of a nobleman, terrible with banners (Song 6:4) (no. 714, v. 4)

I fell in love with a real damsel, an honorable girl, with a noble soul (no. 714, v. 7)

One of the characteristics of the courtly lover is refined, eloquent, morally correct speech. All three of our poets describe this in their ladies:

Pero García Burgalés:

Qual dona Deus fez melhor parecer
e que fezo de quantas outras son
falar melhor, e en melhor razon
(Jensen 1992: 308, no. 45, cantiga 1, vv. 1-3)

‘the lady whom God gave greater beauty,
and whom he endowed with more eloquent and judicious speech, than all the other ladies in the world
(trans. Jensen 1992: 309, no. 45,  cantiga 1, vv. 1-3)

Bonifacio Calvo:

Sos senz e sas granz lauzors (ed. Horan 1960: 25, vv. 36-37)
(‘for her noble speech, [and] her intelligence’) (trans. Horan 1960: 25)

In Abulafia’s case, his lady’s speech is so pure that it motivates and upflits:

“her speech raises up the fallen” (no. 714, v. 20)

Particular to troubadouresque fin’amor is the idea that spiritual love is enough to sustain the lover, who might even prefer to desire the mere idea or memory of his beloved, or perhaps to simply see her or hear her voice, without the possibility of physical union. In this example, Peire Cardenal, writing in Provencal, declares that he actually prefers desire over physical love:

voil ades mais desirar
Que tener ma dona e baisar
‘I still prefer to desire [her]
than to hold my lady and kiss [her]’
(ed. Lavaud 1957: 24, no. 5, vv. 2-3)

Que, ja plazer no-m fezés
Eu fora sos homs adès
‘Though she never grant me pleasure,
I should still be her man forever!’
(ed. Lavaud 1957: 16, no. 3, vv. 12-13)

Abulafia likewise is happy (or happily miserable) to pine away without actually touching his lady, and espouses (at least in this verse) a purely spiritual, hands-off kind of love:

I shall not think ever to touch her
even though I spend my life sobbing over her
(ed. Yellin no. 714, v. 15)

I have no desire to have her, to delight in her body,
only to delight in her soul
(no. 714, v. 21)

In these final texts, I’d like to show you an example of how Abulafia sometimes takes fin’amor to the next level. In this case, he elaborates and builds upon a courtly love trope found in one poem of Pero García Burgalés: that of the skeptic converted, the naysayer who scoffs at the poet’s dedication and suffering, but who, when faced with the irresistible beauty and nobility of the lady in question, finds himself equally if not more enthralled. In this cantiga, Burgalés imagines what would happen to the skeptic if he should be so lucky to catch a glimpse of the poet’s lady:

Ca ben sei eu, u outra ren non á,
que tal esforç’ averá qual eu ei
quando a vejo, que per ren non sei
que lhi dizer: e el assi fará!
Se per ventura lhi dizer quiser
algũa ren, ali u estever
ant’ ela, todo lh’ escaecerá!
(ed. Jensen 1992: 308, cantiga 1, vv. 22-28)

For I know for certain, that, where nobody else is  present,
he will have the same courage I do,
when I see her, for I do not in any way know
what to say to her then: and the same thing will happen to him!
If, by chance, he wanted to tell her
something, as soon as he finds himself
in her presence, everything will slip from his mind!
(trans. Jensen 1992: 309, cantiga 1, vv. 22-28)

In this poem of Abulafia it seems as if he is responding directly to Burgalés, elaborating and dramatizing an entire scene, complete with dialogue, using Burgalés’ verses as an outline. The poet and the skeptic are in the middle of a heated exchange over the futility of the poet’s unrequited love, when the lady herself happens by, trailing with her a cloud of perfume, and illuminating the dark night with her radiance. As you can see, the skeptic is completely won over, and his exuberance exceeds even that of the poet himself in these final verses. I’ll let Abulafia speak for himself here….

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

Conclusions

  1. I think that these examples speak for themselves quite well, and from them I believe we can take away three conclusions:
  2. Neither Abulafia’s religion nor his choice of poetic language prevented him from participating in vernacular poetic practice, even if Abulafia was not composing in the vernacular.
  3. While much of Abulafia’s divergence from Andalusi poetic conventions were idiosyncratic, in some poems, his discourse of courtly love bear clear influence of contemporary troubadours who worked at the court with him.

For a diasporic writer working between a diasporic classical tradition and an emergent vernacular tradition, the question of influences is not a zero sum game. This is typical of any case of cultural production where an artist is drawing on more than one linguistic or religious tradition. The Sephardic case is distinct only in the specifics, but there is nothing structurally unique about Abulafias position as a diasporic poet.

While far from exhaustive, I believe the examples we have seen today are sufficient to demonstrate Abulafia’s participation in the troubadour poetics of his day in Alfonso’s court. He has moments of unadulterated fin’amor (pun intended) cast in Hebrew, giving expression to a vernacular love aesthetic in a classical language that is unknown to his peers composing in the vernacular. His is a uniquely diasporic poetics in which the voices of troubadours, Andalusi poets and Biblical prophets echo back and forth in time, and across the mediterranean.


Bibliography

  • Abulafia, Todros Ha-Levi ben Yehudah. The Garden of Parables and Saws, A Collection of Poems [Hebrew]. Jerusalem, 1932.
  • Alvar, Carlos. La poesía trovadoresca en España y Portugal. Madrid: Editorial Planeta; Real Academia de Buenas Letras, 1977.
  • Alvar, Carlos, and Vicente Beltrán, eds. Antología de la poesía gallego-portuguesa. Madrid: Alhambra, 1985.
  • Beltran, Vicenç. “Trovadores en la corte de Alfonso X.” Alcanate: Revista de estudios Alfonsíes 5 (2006): 163-190.
  • Calvo, Bonifacio. The poems of Bonifacio Calvo a critical edition. Ed. and Trans. Robert Horan. The Hague: Mouton, 1966.
  • Cardenal, Peire. Poésies complètes du troubadour Peire Cardenal (1180-1278). Ed. René Lavaud. Toulouse: É. Privat, 1957.
  • Doron, Aviva. A Poet in the King’s Court: Todros Halevi Abulafia, Hebrew Poetry in Christian Spain [Hebrew]. Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1989.
  • Jensen, Frede. Medieval Galician-Portuguese Poetry: An Anthology. New York: Garland, 1992.
  • O’Callaghan, Joseph F. The Learned King: The Reign of Alfonso X of Castile. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
  • Sáenz-Badillos, Ángel. “Hebrew Invective Poetry: The Debate Between Todros Abulafia and Phinehas Halevi.” Prooftexts 16 (1996): 49-73.

A Hebrew Troubadour in Spain?

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

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

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

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

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

Modern portrait of Alfonso X of Castile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in another poem:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where's Todros?

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

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

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

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

The Brotherhood of the Traveling Manuscript

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

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

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

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

Moses Gaster

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

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

David Yellin

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

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

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

This post was written with support from the Oregon Humanities Center