A mistaken impression of an embassy to Córdoba

This is a post that arose from the 2017 International Medieval Congress, believe it or not, and it’s about a literary motif that crops up in a couple of my sources of resort. The basic shape of it is that someone said something in a paper at the Congress that made me trot out an old theory of mind in discussion and they had, kindly but clearly, to point out a reason that that theory was wrong. And then a week or two later, once back from Lleida, I did a tiny bit of looking into it, with that occasional luxury to follow threads that summers used sometimes to permit, and found that on the one hand was I considerably more wrong than I had thought, but on the other hand that maybe no-one has before combined the sources I now apparently know about. That last probably isn’t true, but at least I can perform putting the pieces together for you all.

Illustration of Notker the Stammerer

St Gall illustration of Notker the Stammerer, from Wikimedia Commons

So, let’s start where I started, with the Gesta Karoli by the Frankish monk Notker. This supposed biography of Charlemagne was written for one of Charlemagne’s grandsons, Charles the Fat about whom we have spoken here, and really contains very little factual information at all; it’s basically a set of kingship parables for the young Charles, using Charlemagne as its ideal monarch.1 One of these stories is about a Byzantine embassy to Charlemagne, and its basic thrust is this. Charlemagne was supposedly trying to make a point to the ‘other’ emperor about the mistreatment of some of his envoys, so had had the incoming delegation escorted by the longest possible route so that their money ran out, then brought them to Aachen.2

“When the envoys finally arrived, [Charlemagne’s masters of ceremonies] ordered the official in charge of the stables to sit on a lofty throne in the midts of his ostlers, in such pomp that it was impossible to believe that he was anyone else but the emperor. The moment the envoys saw him, they fell to the ground and wanted to worship him… Those who were present said: ‘That is not the emperor! That is not the emperor!’ and hit them to compel them to move on.’

This gimmick is replayed several times, with the Count of the Palace, then the Master of the King’s Table, then his steward, each one more splendidly caparisoned than the last, but eventually they finally get taken to the boss man:

“Charlemagne, of all kings the most glorious, was standing by a window through which the sun shone with dazzling brightness. He was clad in gold and precious stones and he glittered himself like the sun at its first rising.”

He is leaning on the originally mistreated envoy, and abject apologies and grovelling therefore ensue, moral victory for the Franks and the clear model to follow is established. As I say, there’s no real sign that this happened but the story is a good one.

Safavid miniature illustration of Ibn al-Arabī with students

16th-century Persian miniature illustration of the philosopher Ibn al-Arabī with some students, author unknown – http://www.ibnarabisociety.org/articles/treasureofcompassion.html, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, I must have read that story first as an undergraduate, but then I had nothing to connect it to and it wasn’t till I first taught the Carolingians some years later that I came across it again and by then it struck a chord in my memory because of my having since read, I think in the fundamental work about the first autonomous Catalan counts and how they got that way, Ramon d’Abadal’s Els primers comtes catalans, a very similar story.3 This story was, Abadal thought, about an embassy of the counts of Barcelona, my boys, to Córdoba in the reign of the first Andalusi caliph, ‘Abd al-Rahmān III, perhaps around 950, and in the story the same trick is played on the ambassadors. This time, however, the punchline is different, because after falling on their faces before officials enough times they are finally brought to the presence of the caliph, who is seated on a wooden stool, ‘in a white robe worth less than four dirhams’, in a room otherwise empty apart from a copy of the Qu’rān on a stand, a sword on another, and a small brazier busily aflame, and he tells the terrfied envoys that they have a choice between the authority of the first or death by the second and consumption in the third.4 Result, abject grovelling and all caliphal terms gratefully accepted, moral victory for Islam and the model is established, and so on.

So when I first made this association I had to wonder if there was a connection, and once I speculated about the possibility that, in an earlier embassy which we know brought down a chronicle of the Frankish kings to Córdoba, either a copy of Notker travelled too or else that that chronicle, of which we only have the barest abstract, contained this story from Notker.5 I still think this was an ingenious solution, but as it turns out there is a much much simpler one which makes me very likely to be wrong, and this is what I found out about at the IMC, because it turns out the instances I knew of this story were not the only ones. In his paper, Professor Stefan Esders had made passing reference to another, and when I quizzed him about later he said that he’d got it from a conference paper by one Jacek Banaszkiewicz, whom he believed was publishing it.6 Actually, it turns out that paper was already out, but it’s in Polish and so I cannot claim to have fully absorbed it.7 Still, the basic thrust of it is possible for me to pick up by grabbing at recognisable terms and references. Professor Banaskiewicz is interested because another of the users of the story is the pseudonymous chronicler Gallus, who uses a slightly different version in which Emperor Otto I of the Germans comes to visit King Bolesław I of Poland and is so dazzled by the reception that he hands over his imperial diadem to the Polish ruler. The way this plays to validate the Polish kingship and its own wider claims is pretty obvious. However, Banaskiewicz also finds the story in the Chronicum Salernitanum, in which it’s Charlemagne visiting Duke Arechis II of Benevento, and this time the dance with a long diversion and officials set up to look like the ruler is in place. And there are further, later, instances too. At the very end of the paper he introduces Notker as an older version, but the underlying trope as he sees it is very much older, being the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon in the Biblical book of Kings (Kings 1:10).

Medieval manuscript illustration of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

Medieval manuscript illustration of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, from the 15th-century Speculum Humanae Salvationis, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Now, the Biblical story does not have the increasing levels of false identification thing going on, but the Ancient History Encyclopedia quickly tells me that it acquires them in some later Jewish and Islamic versions, and as Banaskiewicz is mainly concerned to show, it’s not an uncommon device, so the interesting question now perhaps becomes how Notker got hold of one of those versions, or what the common source is. In any case, though, it’s no longer necessary to draw the link from him to Córdoba; the Arabic writer in question, the Andalusī philosopher Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad Ibn al-ʿArabī, could obviously have picked up the trope more locally, though his inversion of it is still quite original and cute. However, my being wrong sadly didn’t end there…

You see, having got Professor Esders’s message and done my first bits of digging, I went to a book I hadn’t had when I previously made the connection between Notker and Ibn al-Arabī, the invaluable little anthology of Arabic sources which refer to Catalonia edited and translated by Dolors Bramon. The extract is there, of course, because she is a thorough scholar, but with it came several notes that forced me to rethink again.8 You see, no other Arabic source, let alone any Christian one, records this embassy; it doesn’t name the participants, like all of Ibn Hayyān’s records based on the work of people who had actual court archives do, and the outcome seems to imply the conversion of the ambassadors to Islam, which definitely wasn’t required of any of the Christian rulers in the Iberian Peninsula even at the height of the Umayyads’ aggressiveness there. For all of these reasons, in 1974 Fernando de la Granja had concluded that the whole thing was probably just a literary construction, placed in the reign of ‘Abd al-Rahmān III because Ibn Hayyān and so on made that the obvious context for such a meeting.9 In other words, they think it’s fictive. Bother.

The very episode, depicted in Dionisio Baixeras Verdaguer, ‘Abd al-Rahman III Receiving the Ambassador at the Court of Cordoba’, 1885, Universitat de Barcelona, image allegedly public domain via the Ancient History Encyclopedia

Now, there is actually some evidence to suggest that ‘Abd al-Rahmān did play court ceremonial like this, as something vaguely similar appears in the tale of another ambassador to the court, The Life of John of Gorze, which has the long-delayed ambassador finally meet the caliph alone in a space only adorned with fountains, but he has a reclining bench rather than a stool and John told his biographer that was the custom.10 For that reason, it doesn’t seem as if this tale is a clone of Notker or indeed of the Bible, and I’m inclined to think the caliph really did use such presentational tricks, but of course he and his advisors may also have known the story! This would then be life imitating art. All that said, however, there’s no really sound evidence for the actual embassy detailed, or rather left undetailed, by Ibn al-‘Arabī, and I probably have to delete it from my list of data about Count-Marquis Borrell II. That will only hurt my ego, rather than my arguments, so that’s fine.

However, there are a lot of pieces to this jigsaw now. Banaskiewicz knows Notker, Gallus, the Chronicon Salernitanum and some more stuff besides, but not the Arabic version of the story. He also doesn’t cover the Biblical story’s development as far as I can see, and the sources I can quickly find for that don’t realise that there are medieval tropes of it. Meanwhile, de la Granja seems not to have known and Bramon shows no sign of knowing that there is a Biblical tradition behind the story, and they don’t mention the Latin analogues. Right now, as far as I know, it is I, I alone, who have all the pieces of the puzzle! Well, and now you, of course. But we can keep a secret, right… ?

1. Here accessed from Einhard and Notker the Stammerer, Two Lives of Charlemagne, trans. by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Classics, L213 (Harmondsworth 1969); I know the newer translation by David Ganz is better, but right now this is the one I can reach…

2. Ibid., II.6.

3. Ramon de Abadal i de Vinyals, Els primers comtes catalans, Biografies catalans: sèrie històrica 1, 2nd ed. (Barcelona 1965), pp. 316-317.

4. Although I now have Abadal to hand, the account here is paraphrased from the version in Dolors Bramon (ed.), De quan érem o no musulmans: textos del 713 al 1010. Continuació de l’obra de J. M. Millàs i Vallicrosa, Jaume Caresmar 13 (Vic 2000), §396.

5. The chronicle was carried by Bishop Godmar II of Girona, around 940, and is recorded for us in the Meadows of Gold of al-Mas’ūdī, which is accessible only in very abridged English as El-Mas’ūdī, Historical Encyclopedia, entitled ‘Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems;’ translated from the Arabic, transl. Aloys Sprenger, 1 vol (London 1841-), online here; the whole thing is in French, as Maçoudi, Les prairies d’or : Texte et traduction, edd. C. Barbier de Meynard and Pavet De Courtelle, 9 vols (Paris 1861-1877), all on the Internet Archive, but I admit I did not go look for this anecdote there and have it right now from Bramon, De quan érem o no musulmans, §400.

6. Professor Esders’s paper, by the way, was S. Esders, “The Synod of Erfurt: Ottonian and Mediterranean Politics in 932”, paper presented at the International Medieval Congressm University of Leeds, 5th July 2017.

7. Jacek Banaszkiewicz-Pokorny, ‘„Na koronę mego cesarstwa! To, co widzę, większe jest, niż wieść niesie”. Mechanizm fabularny „wizyty Saby u Salomona” w średniowiecznych realizacjach kronikarsko-epickich (Kronika salernitańska, Kronika Galla, Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, Galien Restoré)’ in Agnieszka Teterycz-Puzio (ed.), Na szlakach dwóch światów: Studia ofiarowane Profesorowi Jerzemu Hauzińskiemu (Słupsk 2016), pp. 365–382. I have to thank Professor Esders for sending me an English version of the paper he saw, without which I’d not have got far with this.

8. Bramon, De quan érem o no musulmans, §396.

9. Fernando de la Granja, “A propósito de una embajada cristiana en la corte de ‘Abd al-Rahmān III” in al-Andalus Vol. 39 (Madrid 1974), pp. 391-406, cited in Bramon, De quan érem o no musulmans, p. 291 n. 111.

10. I’ve actually done my own translation of this text for my students, which may even some day be published, but until then there is most of the relevant bit in Colin Smith (ed.), Christians and Moors in Spain, volume 1: AD 711 – 1150 (Warminster 1988), no. 14.

9 responses to “A mistaken impression of an embassy to Córdoba

  1. Right! And let’s not forget that Bible is not the oldest text speaking of this ‘road to throne’ symbolism. East traditions backs easily to the time when gods walked the land.

  2. Allan McKinley

    If this is based on something biblical, have you considered it might be a wider phenomenon? The Bible after all being as prone as any other historical work to happily recycle stories and tropes, and a story of an embassy to a palace passing through various zones being applicable to any ancient culture with centralised royal authority that I’ve seen, it might be that the medieval Christian and Islamic traditions here are one or more descendants of a more widely-dispersed story? If every time you look at something it gets bigger, perhaps that is because this was at heart a story universally applicable across sedentary old world civilisations.

    Obviously this is speculative, but diplomacy seems to be a universal of at least city-based cultures (a quick Google confirms at least by the fourteenth century this applied in the Mesoamerican city states as well) so if a vaguely common understanding of the role of diplomats existed, it seems plausible that a shared corpus of stories/norms about the reception of diplomats existed. Although proving that might require reading a list of languages I wouldn’t even know where to start with…

    • Allan McKinley

      And I see Joan has sone actual examples in mind!

      • Indeed! I do wish WordPress’s spam protection would let your comments through first time, Allan, and I’m sorry that it doesn’t. You hardly ever use hyperlinks, so I don’t see what on earth it objects to. It learns from false negatives, but there seems to be no way to make it learn what are false positives, no whitelist or anything. So I have to approve all your comments manually. Anyway…

        Basically, I agree with you both, but I think that we can easily do this because actually, the container we’re using for this story kernel is actually so baggy that it is holding several kindred, but not identical, stories. The kernel that Banaskiewicz was working with is no more than the technique of layered repetition that we see in Notker’s, Gallus’s and Ibn al-Arabī. But even those three differ considerably in set-up; Notker’s and Ibn al-Arabī’s ambassadors expect to be dazzled and set in the shade, but the way in which that is finally done differs quite sharply, whereas Gallus’s Otto I does not expect it, it being the point of the story that Bolesław surprises him. Thus, it’s only Gallus’s version that is really a parallel to the Queen of Sheba story as it is in Kings. Except that it’s not, because to get the effect Bolesław apparently has his courtiers doing quick-change relays behind the scenes, in order to play different parts further on down the chain of reception: in other words, he too was playing with the story (or Gallus is) because Poland didn’t really have the means to do it properly. But, the Biblical story doesn’t actually have the trope of layered repetition that we see in our examples here, which is perhaps why Banaskiewicz skips through it so very quickly.

        If we were being strictly morphogenetic in our approach, therefore, the stories we have, perhaps including the Biblical one, are all different shoots off a stalk whose necessary description can be no more than ‘ambassador from one king visits another king and is amazed by reception’. As you both say, that could be an old trope; but it is not by itself any of the ones we have in play here…

        So, how would one go further here? I could believe that Notker knew the Queen of Sheba story, but if so he or his source was using it as a base for modification, not a deliberate Biblical echo, or he wouldn’t have the Byzantine ambassadors humbled first; the Biblical effect would be better achieved if they arrived thinking they were top of the world and then had to change their mind, as does Gallus’s Otto I. For that reason, while Gallus may have known Notker, there’s no actual need for Charlemagne to be in his mind; all he needs is the Queen of Sheba story and the idea that in order to impress Otto that much, Bolesław would have to have staged his people several times over. Indeed, reminding people about Charlemagne’s amazing glory and the empire in the West could only really diminish Otto’s status and thus weaken the effect of translatio imperii to Poland. So I don’t think the similarity here proves a link. One or other of them or their sources had to originate the layered repetition, or to have got it from something else; once one is, why not both?

        So, OK, maybe they had a common source for the gimmick that was also accessible to Ibn al-Arabī, and identifying that would be something quite impressive. But doing that might bypass the Queen of Sheba story entirely. I guess then we would see Gallus and maybe the Chronicon Salernitanum grafting it onto the older stock… But the trouble is here that we are dealing with inventive people, whose inventiveness this method tries to reduce to derivation. This is mainly why I think this is work for someone else…

      • Yes, of course. Going to see the king is like going to see God. The way to heaven (I am thinking of the Book of Enoch, for example) uses this figure of mistaken intermediaries (angels) taken as god himself as a way to increase the highness of the target. A counter tale is the road to hell (I love Chris Rea…), Inana being one of the first recorded ‘travelers’ (although in this case there’s no need to use the mistake rethorical device). In the end, both are echoes of rites of passage, symbols and tales almost universally embedded in oral cultures.

        • Apparently I just don’t know the Apocrypha well enough. Is Enoch then the common source for the mistaken intermediaries trick? Good catch if so, Joan! Maybe this is an article you should write…

  3. I don’t think there just a single common textual source, the same ‘mistake’ appears for example in prophet’s visions. My take is that it should be understood in the process of normalization/assimilation of shamanic experiences into cultic teisms. Literacy came later.

  4. Pingback: Demanding and supplying conduct literature – Magistra et Mater

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