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This lecture is dedicated to the memories of two recently deceased teachers and colleagues, Prof. Samuel Armistead and Prof. 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. 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. 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. From , 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 From a European perspective, this period of Muslim political dominance is what most distinguishes the history and culture of the Iberian Peninsula.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
This was nothing short of revolutionary, a shocking innovation in Arabic poetic tradition. 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.
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.
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. 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 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 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. You can still see his legacy in the city seal of LA. 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 by the Catholic Monarchs Isabel the Catholic and Fernando of Aragon. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Resumen El libro del caballero zifar
Libro del caballero Zifar
Bienvenidos a la portada
EL LIBRO DEL CABALLERO ZIFAR (2ª ED.)