Detective work in ninth-century Córdoba

The next thing in my stack of things to blog about is the 2019 International Medieval Congress; but I just did a conference report, and this is basically a good day, so rather than put that task into it – you can wait till next week for that – I’m going to jump slightly ahead, to something that I read and decided to blog about while on the holiday I went on straight after the IMC. The holiday itself will generate a few posts of photos, but we’ll get there in something more like due course. For the time being, all you need to know for this was that I went on holiday with some academic reading off our shelves that I was determined just to read for fun, without taking notes. The lucky selection was Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle (very interesting, but hard to track an argument through), the collected works of Liudprand of Cremona (always good, but I’d never read them all through before), and the translation by David James of the History of al-Andalus by Ibn al-Qūṭīyah.1 And it’s in the last of those, in the section on Emir ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II of Córdoba (ruled 822-852 CE) that I found the story below, which I’ll transcribe from James’s English.2 If you ever find yourself in one of those arguments where someone is maintaining that we’re just smarter now than people in the ‘dark ages’ could have been, it’s a good counter-example.

One of the things told about ‘Abd al-Raḥmān: So many complaints were made against successive civil governors (wulāt al-madīna) of Cordova that he swore that he would never appoint another person from among the inhabitants of the capital. He searched for some one suitable among his clients who were inhabitants of the provinces. One, Muḥammad ibn Sālim was brought to his notice, who – it was said – had made the Pilgrimage, and was a clever but modest man. So he sent for him and appointed him.
“On the first day after his appointment, while riding to the palace, some one told him, ‘A dead body has been found in a straw basket in the al-Qaṣṣābīn [Street or Quarter of the Butchers]. ‘Let us be taken to it!’ he replied. Now, when it was before him, he ordered that the body be exposed on the quay (raṣīf), in case a passer-by might recognise the dead man. Then he ordered that the basket be brought to him, and upon seeing that it was a new one, said, ‘Let all in the straw trade (ḥaṣṣārūn) be brought to me – merchants and workers alike!’
“When they were before him, he took the leaders aside and said, ‘Are baskets and panniers all alike; or can you tell the work of individual makers apart?’ They said, ‘Yes, of course, you can tell them apart; and you can tell the work of those in the provinces from those of Cordova.’
“So he commanded that the basket be brought to them, and they told him, ‘This is the work of so-and-so, who is in the group waiting here.’ Muḥammad ordered that the man be brought to him, which was done. He showed him the basket and he said, ‘Yes this basket was bought from me yesterday by a servant (fatā) in royal uniform’; and he described him. Then the police and vendors said, ‘This is the description of one of the al-akhras, ‘the dumb ones’ [those who do not speak Arabic] who lives at Ruṣāfa!’ They went off to search for him. Some of the clothes of the murdered man were found in his possession.
“Now, when ‘Abd al-Raḥmān heard this, he ordered that Muḥammad be made a minister as well as civil governor; and when he entered the chamber of ministers (bayt al-wuzarā’) all paid attention to his opinion.”

So there you have it, a tenthninth-century Islamic impromptu detective inspector! This said, of course there are some things worth drawing out. Firstly, this obviously wasn’t in any way usual: not only is the reward for cracking the case an indication that this was well above and beyond usual intellectual application to such things, but also the foreign slave soldier (for that’s what the ‘dumb ones’ usually were) obviously didn’t expect anyone to try following his trail, so I suspect on both of those counts that actual investigation of murders in Córdoba of this time was a bit above and beyond. On the other hand, there was a police force, and someone did report the crime to the magistrate-equivalent; it’s not a million miles from French police procedure even if there wasn’t much of a crime-scene investigation or establishment of motive. (I imagine there also wasn’t much of a trial…) But it’s still a forensic resolution of a hidden murder by a man in his second day in a job, and as Ibn al-Qūṭīyah tells it, they had the murderer identified even before they knew who the victim was. Beat that, Maigret!

The Roman bridge over the Guadalqivir in Córdoba, Spain

One of the few bits of Córdoba that’s still roughly as Ibn al-Qūṭīyah would have known it, bar the lighting at least, the Roman bridge over the Guadalqivir looking onto the mosque-cathedral, image from Farhana Nitol, ‘Once Upon a Time Europe Had Its Very Own Flourishing Islamic City’, Mvslim, 25th April 2016, linked through

It’s also worth asking why Ibn al-Qūṭīyah tells the tale, of course. He was writing in the time of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān’s great-grandson of the same name, the one who would claim the caliphate, so some of it is surely the glorification of an ancestor of the current ruler. On the other hand, it’s also plainly a tale of his own streets, even if seventy years before he was born; the numerous local place-names that go unglossed (except by James, thankfully) expect a Cordoban audience who knew they were listening to a Cordoban author. But the message is also clear: appoint your subordinates from wherever good people can be found and reward the ones who deserve it, never mind existing power interests. For a writer at that point claiming descent from the displaced Visigothic kings of two centuries before, that might have been an important message to sneak through in such a genealogical compliment.3 But it isn’t as if the ruler himself was going to turn up to Ibn al-Qūṭīyah’s mosque to hear him teach (which is thought to be how this text was assembled4); the beneficiaries of this message were presumably those who might hope to be appointed, not the ones appointing. And even Muḥammad ibn Sālim was a client of the emir, though it doesn’t sound as if the emir himself knew that, and the audience for this story was in Córdoba while he was not. The most plausible role for the audience’s members might in fact be the anonymous people who made the link between the distant client and the emir by telling the latter about the former, and who presumably also profited from their contact’s sudden and lofty advancement. Oh, and we’re also presumably supposed to be unsurprised that non-Arabic-speaking foreigners are suspect and violent, they’ll murder you for the clothes on your back most of them so watch out, and so on. But for all that the story has messages in it and meanings that lurk below the text, the actual text is still really interesting as a picture from an age we might so easily characterise as incapable of producing it.


1. Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350‒550 AD (Princeton NJ 2013); The Works of Liudprand of Cremona: Antapodosis; Liber de Rebus Gestis Ottonis; Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana, transl. F. A. Wright (London 1930), online here; and Early Islamic Spain: the history of Ibn al-Qutiya, transl. David James (London 2011).

2. Ibid. p. 103.

3. On him and his social position see Ann Christys, Christians in al-Andalus (711 – 1000) (Richmond 2002), pp. 158-183, or eadem, “How the Royal House of Witiza Survived the Islamic Conquest of Spain” in Walter Pohl and Maximilian Diesenberger (eds), Integration und Herrschaft: ethnische Identitäten und soziale Organisation im Frühmittelalter, Denkschriften der Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse 301 (Wien 2002), pp. 233–246.

4. James, Early Islamic Spain, pp. 8-19.

11 responses to “Detective work in ninth-century Córdoba

  1. I really like this little vignette. Shows that those who write medieval detective fiction aren’t just being anachronistic after all – I’ve heard that argued before (on Magistra’s page I think), on the grounds that medieval people simply couldn’t think in such a rational, deductive, processual way as would a Sherlock Holmes, a Hercule Poirot, a Miss Marple, a Philip Marlowe, an Inspector Morse or whoever. But this case shows that some of them could indeed do that kind of thing.

    I’ve recently tried to tackle the misconception that medieval people were stupider/ less rational than us on the blog from a different angle – reinterpreting Agobard of Lyon’s account of weather magic in light of modern conspiracy theories. I decided not to talk about Agobard of Lyon’s own thought since that would mean stepping on Sam Ottewill-Soulsby’s toes as he’s posted relatively recently on just that. https://carolingiansarecool.blogspot.com/2022/09/from-sources-4-carolingian-peasants-and.html

    • Yes, indeed, on all counts. It seemed simpler to pick up the conversation about Agobard over at Sam’s, since we can both be there but Sam is not here or at yours; but my greatest regret about that story is that we don’t know what the four captives actually were, and I presume that that is because it didn’t reflect well on Agobard. But what could that circumstance have been? The actual point of your post, that conspiracy theories are a historically normal way for people to try and deal with events they can’t control, though, is a fair one and one that could do with being exposed more widely; but then upset scientists would simply want to know how to stop it, and the message of history does seem to be, ‘you can’t, because mostly people can’t control a lot of things’.

    • A further thought, in response to your first point. Of course, Holmes and Poirot and Marple and Marlowe and Morse aren’t supposed to be normal people (except maybe Marple). They’re all people with unusually acute brains for this kind of thought, and some of them (again, not Marple) are written with some quite serious oddities that are the price paid for genius. And, of course, they’re literary creations, so what they’re dealing with has to be within an ordinary reader’s reach once explained, but still made to look insoluble at first glance. And as we know, people love this kind of writing.

      At first sight, the Córdoba case above is different because it really happened, and it certainly doesn’t bother to supply most of the standard detective tropes (though as it happens I think it would film really well in a Bollywood style). But we know about it because Ibn al-Qūṭīyah used it as a story to make a point or several, and we know about that because someone listening liked it enough to write it down and compile it into their compilation of great sayings of the master. And you know what that probably means? They also loved this kind of writing…

  2. This is a great piece of text. It deserves to be in anthologies of detective stories. It also puts me in mind of the charter you published a translation of in 2009, about Sendred the Guardian of the Money in Barcelona in 990. Would that this text were as explicit as the chronicle, but it can be construed as Sendred having done some detective work to find out who the forged coins came from.

  3. Did such slave move about alone so freely or act without instructions?

    • ‘Slave’ might be a misleading category here. At the top level, such soldiers could be put in charge of whole frontier provinces and the cities which commanded them. On the other hand, they had still [Edit: been] trafficked and sold and were the property of the sovereign.

      Equally, we might just need to think a bit differently about personal liberty. The c. 1000 Cordoban jurist, theologian, polemicist and poet Ibn Ḥazm has a story about a slave-girl whom a friend of his rather liked the look of, but who didn’t like him, and she was out by herself on errands she felt no need to disclose and apparently in full command of the situation. The very fact that someone else owned her made her untouchable and she clearly knew that. I’m not saying this was OK, but it tells us that slave status need not involve social abjection as well.

      • Oh, but final thought: the Visigothic Code, from a society where slaves were both numerous and socially abject, still has innumerable provisions for what should happen when a slave has committed an offence, whether with the master’s cognizance or without it, which at the very least makes it clear that like this guy, they could get into positions where they could commit such offences often enough to need laws about it. So on the whole I think my answer to your question is just ‘yes’!

      • Very true – and since Rome already had an adoption system, I’ve often wondered (but never investigated) whether it provided a social model for the treatment of certain types of slave. Thinking it over, I realised I was unconsciously thinking of the model of Victorian English domestic service – my bad!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.