The introduction to Issue 5 of Spolia magazine quotes Yale professor Fred Robinson, who said (disapprovingly) that medieval “is most often used in Modern English simply as a vague pejorative term meaning ‘outmoded’, ‘hopelessly antiquated’, or even simply ‘bad’”:

Screen-Shot-2013-09-17-at-8.26.09-PMThis is despite, the Spolia introduction says, “Dante, despite Simone Martini, despite cathedrals and philosophers and the inventiveness of the Ottomans, the Persians, the Japanese”. Not to mention, you know, the Arabs.

These “medieval” times (roughly 500 to 1500 CE or -100 to 900 AH) are usually read separately from Islam’s Golden Age. But Spolia juxtaposes the different “medievals.” The issue has four poems, trans. from the Arabic by Adam Talib, composed between sixth and fourteenth centuries, and a prose excerpt from The Art of Party-crashing, trans. Emily Selove.

Although the issue — despite the introduction — leans toward contemporary contributions with some nod toward medievalisms, it’s good to see classical Arabic poetry speaking to and with other traditions of that time. As Emily Selove, in a previous interview with ArabLit, noted:

Greater dialog among scholars of medieval European literature and medieval Arabists could prove extremely fruitful for a number of reasons, but there is a tendency to think of these two bodies of literature as being separate, and many of the terms we use when referring to these two literatures help maintain a divide between the two fields. Since I focus on the “picaresque,” it is especially useful for me to be able to look all around the Mediterranean, since this is one genre that people strongly suspect was actually influenced in Europe by Arabic literary traditions.

And Joe Lowry, who has been working on a collection that focuses on the lives of the courtesans at the Abbasid court, “most of whom were accomplished poets and singers”:

That’s another thing about the Library of Arabic Literature. One could make the case that there is a unified medieval culture, stretching from the eastern Islamic lands to Ireland or even Iceland. I think for Western medieval studies, it’s going to be important to have some of these texts to integrate into their thinking about cultural and intellectual life in the West in the Middle Ages.

A sixth-century poem that Talib included, by Adī b. Zayd, begins:

He who looks upon us should remind himself
He’s on the verge of fading away.
Not even unyielding mountains can endure
The vicissitudes of time and all that’s their trade.
So many riders who once halted their camels beside us,
And drank wine mixed with pure water, they’d
Had cloths on their wine-jugs for straining,
and prize horses dressed in brocade

It reminded me of the non-medieval sonnet 65, but I’m sure there are much more interesting juxtapositions.

4 thoughts on “Cross-reading the Medieval

  1. María Rosa Menocal spent many years trying to get scholars of medieval Europe interested in bridging this gap. I met one of her former PhD students, Sahar Amer, a couple of years ago, and she told me that unfortunately not much has changed.

  2. Yes, the connection is there, & not only in relation to prose & the picaresque, but also in lyric poetry where troubadour links to tarab, song, & al-Andalus, etc. Habib Tengour & I have tried to show some of those connections in our anthology “The University of California Book of North African Literature.” Also worthwhile checking out in this context is a brilliant book by the Occitan writer Alem Surre-Garcia: “Au-delà des rives les Orients d’Occitanie” which lays out the connections, cultural &n political, between those two “worlds.”

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