Help with some Cordoban Latin scuttlebutt?

Of recent days I have been reading Samson of Córdoba’s Apologeticum contra perfidos, which is a lengthy work of ninth-century theology aimed at stemming the increasing control of the Cordoban Church by people who didn’t, as Samson saw it, even really understand the Trinity and were in place largely because of having been suitably unctuous at the Emir’s court.1 He aims to rekindle the wonder and mystery of Trinitarian Christianity in the reader and thus encourage a new generation to take up the torch, but in the course of doing so he goes properly Gildas about the political parachutists, who, he says, have basically turned the Church into a state revenue apparatus to their own benefit. These are the people he wants out, not least because they briefly managed to get him degraded for heresy in a trumped-up trial by wilfully misunderstanding his doctrine about the Trinity (though I actually think that’s fair enough, as he basically says it’s not comprehensible, albeit some respect is due to him for using paired senses of the Latin word ‘comprehensibile‘ in doing this).2

Church of San Lorenzo in Córdoba

The tenth-century Church of San Lorenzo in Córdoba

Why are you reading that, Jonathan, you may be asking, and the answer is that in the course of indicting his enemies, as well as some good scatalogical late-Antique-style slander,3 he tells several stories that reveal some quite important things about the tax system and the way the Emirs were dealing with control of the Church. I’ll talk about that a bit more in a moment, but first I’d like to ask for help with one of these stories. This is about Samuel, Bishop of Granada, the uncle of Samson’s main enemy—who was Bishop Ostegesis of Malaca (more like Hostis Ihesus! puns Samson)4—and I don’t think I can tell exactly what he is being accused of:

In ipso quippe Parascefe die, dum ante parum tempus pro male gestis a pontificali officio fuisset remotus, Iudas Scarioth nouus Cordobam petiit et tonso tenus cute capite Xpm denegans Muzlemitis, quia iam circumcisus erat, facile adesit et ritui eorum post sacerdotium inseruiuit.5

So, okay, a rough translation:

On the day of the Parasceve, indeed, while before—and not for long enough!—he had been far from the pontifical office in pursuit of evil intents, the new Judas Iscariot betook himself to Córdoba and, having cut his hair almost to the skin of his head, denying Christ to the Muslims, since he was already circumcised, easily clung to and afterwards took care of their rite after the priesthood.

I think that’s pretty close to the Latin but what the goshdarn heck it actually means is another question. Is Samson saying that this guy did convert to Islam? or that he pretended to have done so before, and meanwhile operated as something administrative in the Christian Church as a kind of double agent? Whose priesthood? Islam doesn’t have an organised one in the way that this seems to imply, but the (grammatical) antecedent is pretty clearly Muzlemitis (and yes, it is interesting that he uses that word; elsewhere he uses Caldei, but more on that in a moment). If anyone can see through the grammar to work out what Bishop Samuel is actually supposed to have done, I would be grateful for your input.

Manuscript illustration of the judges at the Millennium judging the souls of the martyrs of Córdoba

Manuscript illustration of the judges at the Millennium judging the souls of the martyrs of Córdoba

The world in which Samson operated is quite hard to fathom in a number of ways. I think that he must have been ignoring quite a lot of change. He refers to people taking bribes in solidi, for example, but the coins had long since been dirhams, so that can only have been a unit of account if that.6 It’s clear that the ‘kings of the Ishmælites’ basically nominated to Church offices, as they can be induced to do this by people like Ostegesis and Samuel who are happy to spend their flock’s offerings on holding banquets for the priori domum regiæ, but (perhaps naturally) he has nothing bad to say of these ‘kings’, who are always anonymous and usually plural, though he will name their functionaries, some of whom are called saio muzlemitus.7 All his terminology is Christian, therefore, and much of it Visigothic, even though the offices and officers he describes are not at all. On the other hand, he renders Arabic names more or less cleanly, and was able to do far more than that since, at one point, his enemies decide to move against him (by getting a Christian who is on trial for blaspheming against Muhammad (‘him whom the Chaldæan people cult as a prophet’) to indict Samson and his protector Bishop Valerius of Córdoba, though the ‘kings’ decide to ignore that testimony, which may be why Samson is neutral about them) because he has been employed to translate a letter from ‘the king of Hispania’ to the king of the Franks “ex Caldeo sermone in Latinum eloquium“, and this sign of emiral favour panics them into action.8 Point being, apparently Samson could translate Arabic…

So, the whole thing does read as if he is trying to hide the political situation from his readers, or else somehow doesn’t think it very relevant. The problem he sees with the Church is corrupt and ill-educated priests and bishops, not the fundamental fact that it is in the power of Muslims. The Muslims are tolerable; they’re not really interested, but they’re amenable to reason as well as bribery, and the only really bad thing they do is subject the Church as a whole to tribute, but they only do that (as Samson tells it) because Servandus, Ostegesis’s right-hand man, turns over several Christians to the authorities for hiding things on which they should have paid regular tax under altars in the city’s churches, whereafter the authorities punish the whole Church.9 Again, somehow he blames the Christians, not the state. On the other hand, it’s what, era 901 he says so 863 AD, the Muslims have been in power in Spain for a hundred and fifty years and they’re only now putting the Cordoban Church under special taxation, as well as apparently being accessible to anyone even claiming to be a bishop and hiring hardline Trinitarian theologians to do secretarial work, so this attitude may be fair enough. All this makes it a very interesting source for the doublethink involved in being on the underside of al-Andalus’s well-known convivencia, but that doublethink is hard to see through. One can’t help seeing Samson as an ostrich with his head in the sand, however viciously he pecks at all the other ostrich’s feet.


1. Samsonis apologeticum contra perfidos, ed. Joan Gil in I. Gil (ed.), Corpvs Scriptorvm Mvzarabicorvm Vol. II, Manuales y Anejos de «Emerita» XXVIII (Madrid 1973), pp. 505-658.

2. Samson, Apologeticus I.9.

3. For example, he goes into unpleasantly gruesome detail about a struggle to remove the foreskin of Ostegesis’s octogenarian apostate father, driven to convert when arrested for non-payment of taxes (Apologeticum, II Præf. cap. 3). This is, I presume, damnation by association, as Samson puts some store by lineage, but there’s plenty of allegations of sexual impropriety too. I don’t like this kind of writing much, though I recognise it’s in a good Roman tradition; it seems so mean-spirited, condemning the accuser as much as the accused, and to diminish the force of the main accusations. On the other hand, I wrote much of this post while listening to the Dead Kennedies’ Plastic Surgery Disasters, which is, after all, an erudite, scathing and often scatalogical attack on people prostituting themselves to a corrupt and uncaring power structure, and which I enjoy thoroughly, so really, where’s that moral high ground I had a minute ago?

4. Samson, Apologeticus II Præf. cap. 2.

5. Ibid., II Pr. 4.

6. Ibid., II Pr. 2 & 8.

7. Ibid., II Pr. 8.

8. Ibid., II Pr. 9, inc. “illum quem gens Caldea profetam colunt“.

9. Ibid., II Pr. 5.

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8 responses to “Help with some Cordoban Latin scuttlebutt?

  1. I don’t have the context, and I don’t know the idiosyncracies of your guy’s Latin, but it sounds to me like he’s complaining that Samuel converted too quickly and easily to Islam after having lost the episcopal throne.

    • Do you read that as him having lost the throne, then? That’s another ambiguity that I wasn’t sure about. I was thinking it just meant that he was too busy with his misdeeds to be involved in Church governance.

      The only obvious idiosyncracy in the Latin I spotted is that he uses nominative place-names rather than compounds of the genitive, and there’s a certain amount of e-for-æ in the orthography. And he likes repeating pairs of opposites, but who doesn’t? The charters are full of them. But of course, I’m used to Spain, it may look weirder from afar. The MS is close-to-contemporary, at least.

      • Well, you being closer to these sources means you’re much better placed to understand them, but I’d say ‘Muzlemetis’ is the indirect object of ‘adhaesit’, not ‘denegans’, so it should read ‘denying Christ, he joined the Muslims easily…’.

        ‘Malegestis’ seems to be a non-standard from of ‘malefactis’, so I’m not sure how far classical forms get us, but classically ‘dum’ followed by the subjunctive should mean ‘until’ or ‘provided that’ rather than ‘while’.

        Also, ‘tenus’ ought to modify ‘tonso’ and not ‘cute’, which might make this the earliest reference to skinheads in European history!

        • Argh! Yes, that makes much more sense, thankyou, I owe you a pint if I didn’t already. As to the skinhead cut, I suppose that he was attempting to eliminate a tonsure, don’t you? But yes, I think you have the right of it, thankyou again.

        • I agree substantively. Although I don’t think it’s necessary to invent a word ‘malegestis’, when it seems from this snippet that Samson is prone to using adverbs when what is really needed is an adjective (witness parum…) I think it just means ‘for evil deeds’. And I think tenus probably does modify cute, with the phrase coming out as an ablative absolute: “with the head having …”.
          But this is all in the way of splitting hairs anyhow… (did you like what I did just there?!). I think your interpretation is sound: the bishop has been removed, and has joined up with the Muslims without so much as a backward glance.

          • hmmm. not sure where the rest of my lovely ablative phrase went. It should have said “with the head having been shaved down to the skin…”

  2. With respect to the ‘sacerdotium’… it’s all a bit hazy. My feeling is that, whatever it is, it belongs to Samuel. I think it’s either ‘after [his] priesthood’ (to which he no longer belongs, having been removed), he was devoted to Muslim rites; OR something along the lines of ‘after [his] priesthood, the next thing he was devoted to was the Muslim rite’… only that would only make sense, given all that has already been said about the bloke, if it were not *priesthood*, but *benefice/priest’s living*. To say that the only thing to which Samuel was more devoted than the rite in question was to his own temporal income or situation seems completely at one with the picture being painted.

    Hmmm… I seem to have been reading an excess of Wodehouse. My grammar is becoming distinctly Bertied.

    Anyway… stop me if I’m way off track.

    • Can’t be that Wodehousian, you haven’t abbreviated anything! In, fact, abbrev. is conspic. by its a. throughout.

      I think the former of the two interpretations you suggest makes the more sense, but either of them seem to strain the grammar. That phrase just doesn’t belong in that clause, I suspect.

      In any case, between you and Theo I am much clearer about the question of what the guy allegedly did, which is the main thing; thankyou!

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