Long-promised conference report (Unislamic Vandals, Perverse Christians and Heavy-metal Arabic Gospels)

It already seems quite a long time ago, but at the beginning of September I was at a conference in Exeter, to wit the Second Colloquium of the Cultures of Christian and Islamic Iberia, whose web-presence seems to have already been killed off by over-zealous admins. I promised you a report on it and by golly a report you shall have, even if it be brief.

I’ve not yet been to a conference in Exeter that didn’t tell one a lot about how not to organise a conference—little tricks like signs directing people to the venue and an organised and informed registration desk really didn’t ought to be beyond possibility—but it was a good and select gathering. In fact possibly too select, as there were only two people present but not presenting, and as one of those was Ann Christys I’d have rather it had been fewer than that because she had been… But still. What we got was good.

I’ll give a list here, but only comment in extenso on those that I had something extra to say about below; anyone wanting more details I don’t give, do comment.

  1. Prof. Richard Hitchcock, “Vandals in al-Andalus?”
  2. Prof. Roger Wright, “Placenames in Medieval Documents: the case of Cabra”
  3. Dr Leonor Sierra Macarrón, “Tipologías documentales del monasterio de Sahagún (siglo X)”
  4. Dr Jonathan Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani Perversi: organisation of society in the pre-Catalan ‘terra de ningú'”
  5. Mr Charles Tindal-Robertson, “The Reconquest in Historical Epic”
  6. Dr Geraldine Coates, “Muslim Rule and the Body Politic in the Estoria de España
  7. Prof. L. P. Harvey, “The Forging of a Sacred Past: from the Votos de Santiago to the Sacromonte ‘Lead Books'”
  8. Dr Anna Akasoy, “Patronage in al-Andalus for Philosophy and Mysticism”
  9. Raquel Sanz Barrio, “The Jewries of Málaga and Vélez-Málaga on the Even of the 1492 Expulsion”
  10. Dr Grace Magnier, “Philip III, Millenarianism and the New Jerusalem”
  11. Dr Juan Carlos Bayo, “Moors and Jews in the Habsburg Sate: on the first performance of Calderón’s El Tuzaní del Alpujarra

Professor Hitchcock’s paper was perhaps the bravest, as it was more hypothetical even than mine. There were some parts of it I couldn’t really admit to believing, but the core of it was a perfectly sensible consideration, which I can encapsulate as follows. Procopius tells us that the Visigoths drove a population of some 80,000 Vandals out of Spain to Africa, and as we know a prosperous and Romanised kingdom in North Africa resulted that there’s been some exciting recent work about. That fell to Justinian’s armies, and then a century and a half later—five generations?—the Muslims took over. Within twenty years they were invading Spain, with armies mostly locally recruited from Africa. So what happened to the people who in 565 were still being identified as Vandals? Presumably they didn’t all die off, but had children, also Vandals? and so on. Must they not therefore have been a fairly sizeable slice of the population that the incoming Arabs called barbarî? And doesn’t that in turn mean that a big part of the army that invaded Spain in 711 was actually coming back to the homes of its forefathers?

Argument with this paper, because of course there was some, centered firstly on Procopius’s numbers, and then on the unknowable questions of acculturation of the Vandal incomers into the population that we would identify as Berbers. Some agreement seemed to be reached that this would probably have varied between city and countryside, and that populations descended from Vandals would probably not have had a great deal in common between the two environments by the time of 711. Almost everyone was forced to admit, though, that whatever their extraction or history, most of the army that invaded Spain in 711 probably spoke Latin, because the alternative would seem to be tens of thousands of people being taught Arabic in a few short years of Muslim rule, and as Professor Hitchcock rightly said, by whom? Surely not enough people. So lots of stuff there to think about.

Professor Wright’s paper was as his usually are inarguably referenced, learned, interesting to anyone who studies language, and outside most of our kens. He says people never have any questions for him and I think it’s mainly because there’s only about five people in the world qualified to argue with him.

Dr Sierra very kindly brought me offprints of loads of stuff of hers, and her Sahagún paper probably interested me more than anyone else, but I don’t think I could tell you much to spark that interest in a blog audience because it was kind of specialised, so I’ll move on.

Someone or other talking to some Hispanists

This guy Jonathan Jarrett had a load of beardy waffle that hardly merits a mention, but I can at least give you his abstract:

Centurions, Alcalas and ‘Christiani Perversi’: organisation of society in the pre-Catalan ‘terra de ningú’

In recent years attention has repeatedly been drawn to evidence that allows critics of older theories of depopulation and repopulation in the Spanish Reconquista to prove that the supposedly deserted lands into which the frontiers of documented Christian society were expanding during the tenth and eleventh centuries were in fact populated. This paper expands on such anti-dogmatic exposés to set out, in an exercise in documentary archaeology supported with material evidence, some of what can be said about the organisation of such `external’ groups on the southern and western frontiers of the tenth-century Catalan counties.

It was all rather sketchy and hypothetical, but there were some pretty slides, and I gather the guy is going to give and hopefully publish a rather better-founded version early in 2008, so you may hear about this again before long…

I think, despite Professor Hitchcock’s attempts, Professor Harvey’s paper was the one I found most enthralling, and that mainly because of the way it matched up with my own interest in weird documents. A while ago, in my most popular ever post, I showed you a slate charter from seventh-century Visigothic Spain, almost the very beginning of the Middle Ages. Professor Harvey was instead talking about apocryphal books of the Bible inscribed, in Arabic on lead discs that were ‘dug up’ at Sacromonte in 1595, right at the other end. He was linking these with an attempt by Santiago de Compostela to claim ecclesiastical offerings from the whole of Spain, but although these texts, which still exist but are locked away in a museum where the curator reckons that the anathema on them pronounced by Innocent XI in 1682 is still binding and so won’t let people see them (!), do contain a new, I’m sorry ‘lost’, Gospel of St James, their actual production probably had motives more local than that.

Sixteenth-century drawing of two of the Plomos de Sacromonte

Because of access restrictions as mentioned, it’s very difficult to tell you much about these documents (of which there were about 20), but what is currently known is presented in a recent book edited by Manuel Barrios Aguilera and Mercedes García-Arena, called Los plomos del Sacromonte: invención y tesoro, which appears to be on sale still in a few corners of the web, and I have to admit, had I but world enough and time, I’d be reading it now.

Those, for me, were the highlights, but I have enough notes on the rest that I could probably tell you more if you wanted. Mainly it was nice to get back to Exeter. There are after all things to be said for talking about the Middle Ages with this kind of setting:

That same beardy bloke pontificating over dinner

(Many thanks to Juan Carlos Bayo for firstly organising and secondly providing the photographs, and to Professor Hitchcock and Dr Sierra for offprints; also to Peter Lahiff for vital drinking assistance…)

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11 responses to “Long-promised conference report (Unislamic Vandals, Perverse Christians and Heavy-metal Arabic Gospels)

  1. Waitaminute… Could you say a bit more on the Arabic Gospel of James? When you say “new” do you mean that it’s not the Infancy Gospel of James?

  2. Derek, how’s your Spanish? There’s a link hidden under the image to the best site I could find about the things. The relevant section says that the discs:

    pretendían ser como un Quinto Evangelio que Dios habría revelado a la Virgen en árabe y que la Virgen había transmitido en esa misma lengua a los discípulos que habían venido con Santiago a la península. Los veintidós libros que se llegaron a encontrar estaban escritos en unos ‘caracteres extraños, tratando de emular un árabe antiguo, no cursivo sino picudo y sin puntos diacríticos ni vocales, que llamaron letras salomónicas’.

    Rapidly and roughly translated:

    they purport to be like a Fifth Gospel that God had revealed to the Virgin in Arabic and which the Virgin had transmitted in the same language to the disciples who came with Santiago to the [Iberian] peninsula. The twenty-odd books that came to light are written in ‘foreign characters, attempting to emulate an antique Arabic, not cursive but [picudo?] and without diacritic or vocalic points, which is called Solomonic script’.

    Now I’ve no idea about the Gospel you’re talking about but this may be enough for you to be sure. I should stress that the difference between what this says and what I say above is down to my sources; I’m fairly sure I report Professor Harvey accurately. However, since no-one has seen these things for a long time, it may be that no-one has good data on the contents! I’m afraid that I certainly don’t know any more till I can get hold of the book, or rather, wait till the end of term and see if it’s in my university library…

  3. When according to Procopius were those Vandals expelled from Spain? My memory of P is of him saying that Justinian shipped the Vandals out of Africa to someplace on the eastern frontier.

  4. It doesn’t sound like the Infancy Gospel… The Infancy Gospel has quite a bit about the birth and life of the BVM herself and is not set as a revelation from her. Too, I’ve never heard anything about it coming in odd characters. This doesn’t really count as hard evidence based on manuscript fluidity but I read veintidós as 22; the Infancy Gospel tends to be marked out into either 24 or 25 chapters.

    This doesn’t sound like any early Christian James traditions I’m familiar with. The frame story in particular makes me think it’s a medieval apocryphal tradition. Interesting…

  5. I agree with Derek, the text as described sounds quite different, esp. as the Infancy Gospel purports to be James’ more or less eyewitness account and not transmitted through either revelation or the Virgin. Oh for knowledge of Arabic!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. In reverse order…

    Larry, Arabic won’t help you till these texts are actually let out of custody, but of course one could find other uses for it meanwhile! I should really do something about that but I currently don’t even have time to dream of having the time.

    Derek, yes, you’re quite right, `veintídos’ is twenty-two. I am much less easy with Castilian than Catalan. But even so I think that refers to the total number of the actual discs, not of the Gospel chapters. These have other texts beyond the Gospel and it’s not one disc per chapter or anything. I’ve clipped the text rather badly and that isn’t clear from my quote, sorry about that. I’m pretty sure from what you and Larry say that this is not the same text, though, but something more modern. A friend of mine who works on the occult literature of this period may know more; I’ll ask her when next we get to a pub together.

    Prof. Muhlberger, I hope you’ll forgive me if I use my notes rather than hunting down the actual Procopius, but Professor Hitchcock used the dates 429, for when the Vandals actually arrived in Africa (and this is the event that the figure of 80,000 people refers to); 533 for Belisarius’s defeat of the Vandal army, though he stressed that Procopius claims the defeat was so artfully strategic that only 800 of the enemy had to be killed. This is the point at which some of them were shipped to Constantinople but, according to Professor Hitchcock at least, only some. I think his point was that three generations on from 429 that population must have roots down deep, whereas how large the army is by then, who knows? And who knows how the Greek armies saw the others in the population?

  7. Oh c’mon, Larry. How hard can Arabic be, really? It’s close enough to Hebrew and Aramaic that it may be as much figuring out vocalic shifts and cluing into the grammatical evolution than learning a whole new language…

  8. Point taken Derek, but I confess to my Hebrew and Aramaic being a bit rusty. That and knowing the Arabic script…..anyway, I wonder if it isn’t a late medieval or even early modern “gospel” somewhat influenced by the Arabic Tatian tradition?

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