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

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

11th c Syriac MS. Source: Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cathedral of Toledo. Source: Wikipedia.

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

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

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

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

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


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