Tag Archives: ‘Abd al-Rahman III al-Nasir

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.

Reporting on the International Medieval Congress of 2017

I’m sorry for another long absence. Teaching in the time of Covid is just doing me in, and largely for reasons of our beloved government. History at Leeds are currently teaching online, to which we switched at pretty much the last minute possible. Prior to that we had been getting ready for mixed face-to-face and online teaching, because the Office for Students had indicated that they might support fees refunds for students offered only online teaching. However, we obviously knew that we’d have some students who could not come in, because of being infected or shielding or whatever, and so there had to be online provision as well, which had to be as good as the face-to-face in some unmeasurable way that, if we didn’t manage it, could also result in fees refunds. So at least we had it ready, if some of us more than others, but in addition to this we simultaneously had new legislation that is nothing to do with the pandemic, about making digital resources maximally accessible to the disabled, according to the W3C’s rules; that’s now English law, and again if we don’t do it we can expect fines, at least in theory. What this all means in practical terms is that quite a lot of the last week has gone on correcting closed captions for my and other people’s pre-recorded or live-recorded lectures, and this has been a relatively good week, or I wouldn’t be writing at all; the last three were worse… So here we are.

Leeds IMC 2017 banner image

So, for all those reasons I can’t do my normal scale of justice to a report of a conference from three years ago, even though it was a good and big one. Indeed, the idea of being among that many fellow academics with something worthwhile to say seems almost impossibly distant right now, and indeed my own involvement in it was unusually small, suggesting that I was short of time to organise something decent. I certainly can’t do my usual list of papers attended. But I will try and address the conference’s main theme a bit, because a number of people did make me think differently about it with their contributions; I will also light on four sessions in particular that I thought were notable for one reason or another; and I will give a few snippets of reflection on other single papers, and hopefully then there’ll be something interesting to read even if the whole conference can’t be here.

Otherness

The conference theme was Otherness. As usual, many papers continued as normal without paying much attention to that, but there were certainly plenty that did pay attention, some (as the academic media made abundantly clear for the next few days) with less care than others. A rapid trawl through my notes looking for the asterisks that mean something struck me at the time note a couple of things here, about how the category of Other is philosophically constructed and about how it is then put to social use. The idea that a community or interest group establishes its identity by means of identifying something that it is not and then defining against it is now a pretty established one in sociology and history has not been as slow as it often is to borrow this bit of theory, but as so often when you use theory to reflect on the past it bounces back looking different…

Two sharp points about this came out of two of the keynote lectures on the first day, for me, which is as it should be I suppose, but they were these. Firstly, Felicitas Schmieder, talking about “The Other Part of the World for Late Medieval Latin Christendom”, made the point that invocation of ‘the Other’ is inherently a binary system that can support only two categories: there’s Them, and there’s Us, and no room for anyone not to be either. Earlier in the day Nikolas Jaspert, talking about “The Mediterranean Other and the Other Mediterranean: perspectives of alterity in the Middle Ages”, had made a similar point, which I think is about scale (as so many things are); invoking competing mercantile élites as a case, he pointed out that, for example, the Venetians and Genoese might well have been each other’s ‘other’ at times but when a Muslim city (or indeed Constantinople) rose against Italian merchants, they were the same from the mob’s point of view and indeed right then probably each other’s; so both perspective and size of the lens matter a lot when we make these categorisations from where we now stand with respect to the medieval (or any) past. Much later in the conference, Rebecca Darley, in a response to a session about ‘Writing the Other in the Middle Ages, III: discovering new knowledge of the world‘, pointed out that for some medieval people everything was inside the group, her example being the unknown author of the Christian Topography, a sixth-century author determined to prove theologically that the Earth was flat in surface and constructed in the image of the Biblical Tabernacle, and who therefore has to encompass everyone on it as part of God’s scheme, even the Persians for whom he plainly had little but disdain. Detecting othering may sometimes therefore miss the point…

The world map from the Christian Topography of Cosmas

The world map from the Christian Topography of Cosmas. “WorldMapCosmasIndicopleustes” by Cosmas Indicopleustes, 6th century – “Les Sciences au Moyen-Age”, “Pour la Science”. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

There were also three sharply-pointed examples of othering being used as a political tactic; in fact, I’m sure there were more but these ones talked to me because of referencing contexts that I interest myself in. Firstly, in the second keynote of the conference, entitled “Drawing Boundaries: inclusion and exclusion in medieval islamic societies”, Eduardo Manzano Moreno posed that contentious document, the so-called Covenant of ‘Umar, as a marker of a change of direction within Islam, from a position that, like the Christian Topography‘s theology, could potentially include everyone in the world, to one which would actually prefer to slow assimilation to Islam, maintaining an Other so as to preserve the superior position of the in-group.1 Subsequently, Nik Matheou, speaking about “Armenians in East Roman Cappadocia, c. 900–1071: settlement, the state apparatus, and the material reproduction of ethnicity”, invoked James Scott’s idea of the Zomia to classify rural populations in Armenia during a phase of Byzantine control as being subjected, by the laying out of an administrative structure but also by church-building, to an ‘Armenian’ identity they might well not have felt had anything to do with them, since it was largely being imported by a foreign power; in that respect at least this version of ‘Armenian’ identity was an Other constructed around these people.2 I found the argument here possible but remembered the deliberate production of an Armenian identity in a foreign space less than a century later and wondered if, assuming those groups were in fact uncontrolled, the Byzantine construction of Armenian-ness was necessarily the first which had been imported there.

Obverse of a silver tram of King Levon I of Armenian Cilicia struck in 1198-1219, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/MED/AR/1

Obverse of a silver tram of King Levon I of Armenian Cilicia struck in 1198-1219, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/MED/AR/1, which you will notice if you look is lettered in Armenian and represents the king, somewhat Byzantine-like, but fundamentally on a throne made of lions, a bit of a unique iconographic departure…

Lastly, and furthest off my normal map, Reinier Langelaar, in a paper called “Tales of Foreign Descent in Tibetan Ruling House Genealogies”, made the point that in zones of particular cultural coherence—like medieval Tibet—a hint of difference might actually distinguish one usefully from ones’s competitors, which was, he thought, why so many would-be ruling families in the area attempted to claim some kind of outsider descent. Quite what the advantages of such distinction might be I needed more time to work out, but it was at least a positive spin on Otherness that some other papers were finding it harder to find.

Stand-Out Sessions

Not every session I might remark on here would stand out for good reasons, but quite a few did and it seems nicest to concentrate on those. Simplest to pick out was a round table on “An Other Middle Ages: What Can Europeanists Learn from Medieval Chinese History?” Naturally enough, this was essentially composed of some people who work on China who wanted the rest of us to realise that China is cool and useful to think with, and some people who thought that sounded great but had no idea how to start, especially if they don’t read Chinese as most scholars of the European Middle Ages don’t. (Wǒ huì shuō yīdiǎn, yīdiǎn zhōng wén… now, but I couldn’t then and I certainly can’t read it. Yet.) That was itself not too surprising – the language barriers exist and so does Otherness – but I don’t think I’ve ever been in a round table where so many people contributed, from all over the discipline, Sinologists, Byzantinists, late medieval Italianists, high medieval Germanists, high medieval Englishists (Anglologists?) and several more I couldn’t identify, all there because one way or another they did want to know more. I may later look back and see a sea change as having started here.

After that, and much much closer to my home interests, was a session entitled “10th-Century Uses of the Past, II“—I’d missed the first one—in which Simon Maclean, no less, managed persuasively to set the epic poem Waltharius into the context of the struggle between the last Carolingians and upcoming Ottonians in the middle tenth century, in which the dedicatee of the poem, Bishop Erchembold of Strasbourg was deeply involved; this did, as Simon said, explain why he might have laughed.3 Elina Screen then looked at the history of the monastery of Prüm, important to her as the burial place of her great subject, Emperor Lothar I (ruled 817-55, kind of) and best known to us through the Chronicle of one of its abbots, Regino (which indeed Simon has translated) and the monastery cartulary, the so-called Liber Aureus.4 Regino is famous for his gloomy opinion of the Carolingians, whose collapse of power he lived through, partly in exile; the Liber Aureus however makes a huge deal of them, and Elina suggested that a lot might be explained if we notice that Regino was apparently unable to extract any donations from the Carolingian kings and that his specific relationship with the royal family might have been one of the reasons his tenure as abbot didn’t work out, in which case we might want to be careful about generalising from him!

There were also two sessions on another bit of my tenth-century world, mainly Galicia, that overlapped a bit. The first, entitled “Ladies and Lords in 10th and 11th-Century Iberia: rivalries, factions, and networks“, featured Lucy K. Pick, in “The Queen, the Abbess, and the Saint’s Body: Faction and Network in 10th-Century Galicia”, recounting the use made by Queen Elvira of León of the body of Saint Pelagius, supposedly a boy martyr killed because he would not submit to the homosexual lusts of the future Caliph ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III. Although there certainly were some Christians put to death for denouncing the Prophet in tenth-century al-Andalus, this story is probably not true (despite what Wikipedia currently says); but it was put to serious work positioning the queen and her husband King Ramiro I as heads of the resistance to Islam in a Leonese court world then quite divided by faction.5 I’ve always wondered why that cult became such a big deal, given its likely fictionality, and some kind of home context for it—Pelagius was claimed as a local boy from Galicia—would certainly help with that.

The questions in the other session, “Iberian Monasticism, II: Early Middle Ages“, involved quite a discussion about Galicia, indeed, which another of the papers in the first one, by Rob Portass, had also featured. In this one, Rob resisted the idea that Galicia was a frontier, wanting I guess to frame it as a centre of its own, and Jorge López Quiroga and Artemio Manuel Martínez Tejera maintained that basically everything in the north of early medieval Iberia was a frontier space because of its vulnerability to attack from the south. The context was that Rob was contending for a movement of ideas rather than people to explain material-culture similarities between south and north, and the others were still basically looking for fugitive Mozarabs from the south with heads full of architecture they wanted to keep, and I don’t really know how we solve that.

Last in this list of sessions that struck me was one of two whole sessions, quite early on, on the Alans, one of the more obscure but long-lived migratory peoples of the early Middle Ages, called “Bringing in the Alans, II: Society and Economy of Alania“. Apparently Turkic of language and best known around the Caspian Sea, some people so considered were already up on the Rhine by the early fifth century and some settled in Gaul, eventually to become the source of some really quite overstretched historiographical claims.6 Two of the papers in the session, “Alans in the North Caucasus: settlement and identity”, by Irina Arzhantseva, and “Population and Society in the Sarmatian and Early Alanic North Caucasus: the cemetery of Klin-Yar (near Kislovodsk, Russia)”, by Heinrich Härke, were mainly about identifying Alan settlement in one of the zones to which these people supposedly migrated, which was a bit pots-means-people to be honest, but the third one, Nicholas Evans‘s “Alans on the Move: a case study in the archaeology of mobility”, despite coming out of the the same project as Härke’s, stood out for mentioning the Alans who stayed behind, still to be a factor in Caspian-era politics in the ninth century and dealings with the Khazars, and apparently looking quite different in material-cultural terms. The fact that all these people were called Alans by outsiders really became the question that was getting begged for me here.

Individual notes

Also, two things that don’t really fit anywhere else. In a session I will actually write about separately, “The Transformation of the Carolingian World, III“, Charles West, in a paper he had written with Giorgia Vocino called “Why Shouldn’t Judges Get Married? An Ottonian Perspective”, noted in passing that Emperor Otto III owned a copy of a commentary on the Codex Justinianus, the sixth-century Roman lawcode that was supposedly forgotten in the West until the twelfth century but which, as we’ve seen here before, wasn’t, at least in Rome, where Otto III also hung out.

Then lastly, there was my paper. I might have organised more sessions on frontiers, but I had been hoping to do something with the proceedings from the previous year and hadn’t really felt I could ask people to contribute more things with which I could not promise to do anything. So I wound up accepting an invitation to participate in a session being run by a friend of a friend, entitled, “Writing the Other in the Middle Ages, I: Travellers and their Cultural Preconceptions“. This was, as is so often the case for me, the morning after the dance, and my paper was called “Hagrites, Hagarenes, Chaldeans and Saracens: Missing Muslims on the Spanish march, 800-1000”. This wasn’t really much to do with travellers, but picked up on the scholarship I’ve mentioned here once or twice on people with Arabic names in tenth-century León, the very people about whom that debate over cultural transfer or physical migration already mentioned mainly arises, and tried to replicate it for Catalonia.7 And what I basically found is that you can’t; despite a much denser sample of charter evidence, there are all of 13 such persons in the documents I could check, as opposed to maybe 300 in the Leonese stuff. It is possible that, not having access then to the documents from Barcelona, I was missing out the capital to which, as in León, such migrants might have flocked, but the order of difference is still significant, and furthermore, I do now have the Barcelona documents and on a very quick run through the indices just now I don’t think they would add more than three or four.8 So that is something which might need explaining, but I think it must show support for the idea of a very low level of Islamization or Arabicization during the eighty-odd years in which the future Catalonia was in fact Muslim-run, no matter what some people would have you believe.9

Books!

Oh, also, it would not be a Leeds IMC report if I didn’t also report on books. The world’s second-biggest medievalist bookfair is a dangerous thing when you are paid for being an academic, and I came away with this list:

  • Norman H. Baynes, Byzantine Studies and Other Essays (Westport 1974), I admit I’m now not sure why;
  • Neil Christie and Hajnalka Herold (eds), Fortified settlements in early medieval Europe: defended communities of the 8th-10th centuries (Oxford 2016), because by and containing friends and papers I’d been to in previous years;
  • Janina M. Safran, Defining Boundaries in al-Andalus: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Islamic Iberia (Ithaca 2015), largely because I had been telling students to read it without having done so myself and wanted to know why, having done so, they never seemed to cite it for anything;
  • Mark Whittow, The Making of Orthodox Byzantium, 600–1025 (Basingstoke 1996), because it’s great; and
  • Patrick J. Geary (ed.), Readings in Medieval History, 1st ed. (Peterborough 1991), because it’s the archetypal sourcebook except for all those other older ones and has a wider idea of what sources might be than they do.

Even this seems to speak somewhat of being subdued, doesn’t it? And of course, I haven’t read them, not so much as opened two of them except to get them into Zotero. Oh well… But I did have fun at the conference, even if I was exhausted for a lot of it. It just seems a very long time ago now!


1. It has been established since 1930 that the Covenant of ‘Umar probably does not date, as it seems to claim, from the reign of Caliph ‘Umar I (634-644 CE), but perhaps from that of ‘Umar II (717-720), for which see A. S. Tritton, The Caliphs and their Non-Muslim Subjects: A Critical Study of the Covenant of ‘Umar (London 1930), online here except in China, but the article in which I first read about it, Norman Daniel, “Spanish Christian Sources of Information about Islam (ninth-thirteenth centuries)” in al-Qanṭara Vol. 15 (Madrid 1994), pp. 365–384, raises doubts about even that, pointing out that no-one in al-Andalus ever seems to have been aware of it, which suggests that it should come from the ‘Abbāsid period of rule in the East, not the Umayyad one.

2. Scott’s relevant work is James C. Scott, The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia (New Haven 2009), online here, but you can hear Nik’s application of it here if you like.

3. There is still no better account of that sporadic contest between a failing and a rising royal dynasty who shared claims on some territories than Rosamond McKitterick, The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 751-987 (London 1983), pp. 305-339; one day either I or Fraser McNair, or, most worryingly as a possibility, both of us, will have to write one…

4. For the Chronicle, therefore, see Simon MacLean (ed./transl.), History and Politics in Late Carolingian and Ottonian Europe: The Chronicle of Regino of Prüm and Adalbert of Metz (Manchester 2009); for the cartulary, you have to go to H. Beyer, L. Eltester & A. Goerz (ed.), Urkundenbuch zur Geschichte der Mittelrheinischen Territorien, band I: von den ältesten Zeiten bis zum Jahre 1169 (Koblenz 1860; reprinted Aalen 1974), which has most of the documents in.

5. On this story see Ann Christys, Christians in al-Andalus (711 – 1000) (Richmond 2002), pp. 88-101; there were certainly martyrs in the reign, as witness C. P. Melville and Aḥmad ‘Ubaydlī (edd.), Christians and Moors in Spain, Volume III: Arabic Sources (711–1501) (Warminster 1992), pp. 38-43, but perhaps not as many as have been claimed; see Christys, Christians in al-Andalus, pp. 80-88 and 101-107 for critical review.

6. Meaning Bernard S. Bachrach, A History of the Alans in the West (Minneapolis 1973) and his pathfinder work for that book, idem, “The Alans in Gaul” in Traditio Vol. 23 (Fordham 1967), pp.476-489, reprinted in idem, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West, Collected Studies 405 (Aldershot 1993), chapter III.

7. Such work being mainly Victoria Aguilar Sebastián and Fernando Rodríguez Mediano, “Antroponimia de origen árabe en la documentación leonesa (siglos VIII-XIII)” in El reino de León en la alta edad media VI, Fuentes de Estudios de Historia Leonesa 53 (León 1994), pp. 497–633, Sebastián, “Onomástica de origen árabe en el Reino de León (siglo X)” in al-Qanṭara Vol. 15 (Madrid 1994), pp. 351–364 and Rodríguez, “Acerca de la población arabizada del reino de León (siglos X y XI)”, ibid. pp. 465–472, now added to by Richard Hitchcock, Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain: identities and influences (Aldershot 2008), pp. 53-74.

8. They now being published as Ignasi J. Baiges i Jardí and Pere Puig i Ustrell (eds), Catalunya carolíngia volum VII: el Comtat de Barcelona, Memòries de la Secció Històrica-Arqueològica 110 (Barcelona 2019), 3 vols, my copies of which I owe to the great generosity of Professor Josep María Salrach.

9. Most recently, Ramón Martí, “De la conquesta d’al-Andalus a la majoria musulmana: el cas dels territoris de Catalunya (segles VIII-X)’ in Pilar Giráldez and Màrius Vendrell Saz (edd.), L’empremta de l’Islam a Catalunya: materials, tècniques i cultura (Barcelona 2013), pp. 11–35.

This makes things more complicated

It’s day 3 of the UK academic staff strikes, and we are very much still on it. Let me remind you again of my presence in the teach-out at the Quaker Meeting House on Woodhouse Lane tomorrow, details here, and then pick up yet another post I meant to have time to finish years ago but only now have! This one is about Tarragona.

University and College Union pickets on the steps of the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

University and College Union pickets on the steps of the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, this very day

If you fly into Catalonia nowadays, Tarragona’s airport (Reus) is one of your three options. I’ve never yet used it, because it’s further away from the bits of Catalonia I work on than the other two by some way, and that may itself tell you that in the ninth to eleventh centuries it wasn’t really part of the world I study. Even though it had been a metropolitan bishopric and the centre of a frequently restless province during the time of the Visigoths, we know very little about the city after the Muslim invasion of 711, and the general best guess has been that it was more or less deserted. I’m sure that there is more to know, and Lawrence McCrank has made it his life’s study to know it and may any day publish work that means what I say below is just wrong, but as far as I know our data for early medieval Tarragona after Islam are more or less these:1

  • At some point between 804 and 806 the city was besieged and briefly taken by the Frankish armies of King Louis the Pious of Aquitaine, but then abandoned again, presumably because it either wasn’t strategically useful or because it was indefensible.2
  • In 941/42 ‘Frankish’ forces recaptured the city, which must have been the work of Marquis Sunyer of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, very busy on the frontier around this time.3
  • In 956 Abbot Cesari of Montserrat, at the prompting of ‘his princes’, went to León and was consecrated Archbishop of Tarragona, but found that his theoretical suffragan bishops wouldn’t respect his appointment when he returned. He carried on using the title till the end of his life in 981, but with no chance ever of being recognised in it, especially after…4
  • In 966, after an attack on the frontier by the forces of the relatively new Caliph al-Hakam II of Córdoba, Count-Marquises Borrell and Miró of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, returned a number of frontier fortresses to Muslim control, which seem to have included Tarragona.5
  • In 970, while on an embassy to Rome, Borrell II tried to get the metropolitan dignity of Tarragona transferred to a city he actually did control, Vic, prompting an epistolary howl of protest from Abbot, I mean Archbishop, Cesari.6
  • After that, we know basically nothing until serious attempts started being made in the 1090s to raise troops for a campaign to recapture the city, which finally succeeded in 1117, with its archbishopric having been optimistically restored some years before. After that it was just about held onto for some time until reaching greater security in the late twelfth century.7

But, unless I’ve missed something, that’s about what we know. I have assumed a good few things about it in my mental picture of my counts’ world: that it was effectively ruinous, making it hard to defend without massive clearance; that it was effectively deserted; that anyone holding land out there did so without reference to Barcelona; and that, despite probably not having any actual governor or anything, it was notionally Islamic at least 720-809, 809-941 and 966-1117. I have tended to explain the apparent Muslim inconsistency over whether it was worth defending through matters of local control: for much of the 950s the Upper March of the Caliphate was in the control of the Tujībid lineage based in Zaragoza, who had replaced the infamous Bānu Qāsī as local warlords a few years before, and the Tujībids were in rebellion for much of that time too, so I’ve always assumed that the Frankish conquests initially looked like good news in Córdoba, deligitimising and weakening the rebel lords, until such time as Córdoba itself ruled there again, which is why Barcelona then caught the caliphal attention in the 960s and had to withdraw.8 Tarragona itself, however, doesn’t seem to have been the prize for the Muslims. Wikipedia currently says “It was an important border city of the Caliphate of Córdoba between 750 and 1013”, but I have never thought we have any basis to say that. But then I came across this, and things became more complicated…

Alabaster arch with Arabic ornament and inscriptions, Tarragona, Museu Diocesà, Col·lecció àrabe, no. 1

Alabaster arch with Arabic ornament and inscriptions, Tarragona, Museu Diocesà, Col·lecció àrabe, no. 1

I learnt of this from a rather good little blog post by one Marcelo del Campo, but I really should have known about it already, as I had in fact read about it a long time before and, evidently, forgotten.9 The reason this arch is a big deal, despite being quite small, is that its inscription proclaims it to have been commissioned by ‘Abd al-Rahmān III al-Nāsir, the first Caliph in al-Andalus, in the year 960. The implication of that would be that actually, the counts of Barcelona did not control Tarragona in the 950s as I have thought, or else that they were chased out earlier than I thought, and also that the city was important enough to have some really fancy stonework from the Caliph himself. All of that would be quite a change, but it’s harder evidence than my guesswork and so I would have to accept it. But thankfully for my peace of mind, there’s a way out.

Gate of Ya'far at the palace of Madinat al-Zahra', near Córdoba

Gate of Ja’far at the palace of Madinat al-Zahra’, near Córdoba, image by Wwal – Own work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Note that Ja’far, one of al-Hakam II’s ministers, is also named on the Tarragona arch.

You see, as Señor del Campo rightly points out, there’s no way to know that this arch was actually in Tarragona when it was first put up. We just know that it was incorporated into the cloister of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century cathedral. It would be the only sign of ‘Abd al-Rahmān III being interested in places this far out, especially after he stopped campaigning in person in 939, and it seems a lot more like the kind of architecture that survives from his palace outside Córdoba at Madinat al-Zahrā’, such as you see above, than anything else we have from Tarragona.10 And, not to put too fine a point on it, the Catalans helped sack Córdoba in 1010, with several bishops being present, and plenty of stuff remained for later bishops to nick later on too, including the archbishops of Tarragona once there finally were some of those again. And now that I look, the Diocesan Museum itself now attributes this piece to Madinat al-Zahrā’. So thankfully for me, my story of Tarragona probably remains intact, until Professor McCrank’s book comes out, at least. But it had me worried for a moment! And so you have today’s blog post.


1. There is probably also more information than this in Emilio Morera Llauradó, Tarragona Cristiana: Historia del Arzobispado de Tarragona y del territorio de su provincia (Cataluña la Nueva) (Tarragona 1897-1899), 2 vols, but I didn’t spend as much time with the only copy I’ve ever seen as I should have done, sorry…

2. Astronomer, Life of Emperor Louis, printed as ‘Vita Hludowici Imperatoris’ in Ernst Tremp (ed.), Thegan, Die Taten Kaser Ludwigs (Gesta Hludowici Imperatoris). Astronomus, Das Leben Kaiser Ludwigs (Vita Hludowici Imperatoris) (Hannover 1995), pp. 279–555, online here, cap. 29 (pp. 320-323).

3. Al-Mas’Ūdī, The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems, translated into Catalan 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, Biblioteca Jaume Caresmar 13 (Vic 2000), §411 (pp. 305-306).

4. Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic: segles IX-X, Documents 1 (Vic 1980-1996), no. 404, on the chronology of which see Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “L’abat Cesari, fundador de Santa Cecília de Montserrat i pretès arquebisbe de Tarragona. La falsa buttla de Santa Cecília” in idem, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i Documents 13-14 (Barcelona 1969), 2 vols, II, pp. 25–55.

5. Ibn Khaldūn, History of the Berbers, transl. in Bramon, Érem o no musulmans, §424 (pp. 316-317).

6. Junyent, Diplomatari de Vic, doc. no. 405, with Cesari’s howl being no. 404; on this episode, see Jonathan Jarrett, “Archbishop Ató of Osona: False Metropolitans on the Marca Hispanica” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 56 (M¨nchen 2010), pp. 1–42.

7. See Paul Freedman, The Diocese of Vic: tradition and regeneration in medieval Catalonia (New Brunswick N.J. 1983), online here, pp. 29-37, or Lawrence J. McCrank, “Medieval Tarragona: reconquest and restoration” in Butlleti Arqueològic de la Reial Societat Arqueològica Tarraconense Vol. 19/20 (Tarragona 1997/98), pp. 219-230.

8. On these events, hard to reconstruct, see Hugh Kennedy, Muslim Spain and Portugal: a political history of al-Andalus (London 1996), pp. 92-94 & 102.

9. It is described, and indeed translated and painstakingly drawn on a fold-out plate, in Prospero de Bofarull y Mascaró, Los condes de Barcelona vindicados, y cronología y genealogía de los reyes de España considerados como soberanos independientes de su marca (Barcelona 1836-1838), 2 vols, I (online here), pp. 171-175, which I would have said I’ve read.

10. See Maribel Fierro, ʿAbd al-Rahman III: the first Cordoban caliph (Oxford 2005), pp. 53-78, for context, with pp. 109-116 on Madinat al-Zahrā. On Ja’far, see Kennedy, Muslim Spain and Portugal, pp. 101-102.

Linking al-Andalus: approaches separated by a millennium

I started working on Catalonia mainly because it was a frontier zone, and though I identify as a Carolingianist if I can get away with it, it has to be said that the reason I knew anything about the area at all was because of having done a paper on Muslim Spain as an undergraduate. I don’t read Arabic (a salutation here to the friend and Arabist who occasionally helps me with it) but it is, all the same, important to have some kind of idea what the other side of the frontier was like, especially given that what first interested me in the area was the space in between the two sides, which could therefore be some of either. So I read stuff about al-Andalus, which you probably know is the Arabic name for Muslim Spain, when it passes my way.

the first Cordoban Caliph

Cover of Maribel Fierro’s ‘Abd al-Rahman III: the first Cordoban Caliph

So recently I’ve just finished Maribel Fierro’s cAbd al-Rahman III: the first Cordoban Caliph (Oxford 2005), which is a slim little biography in a series called Makers of the Muslim World. It does the man reasonable credit, as far as I’m any judge. The narrative sections are a little awkward, but not at all bad when you consider the author was writing in at least her second language. Only twice, both in the same chapter, is the grammar or syntax anything less than fine, and there I think bad editing had lost words. The thematic chapters are stronger, though, quite subtle settings-out of the propaganda war with the rival Fatimid caliphs in what is now Tunisia that provided the context for cAbd al-Rahman’s adoption of the caliphal title in 929, of the differing currents of religious opinion, and of how the ruler operated so as to maintain his position and reputation (his rule, from 912-961, was one of the longest of any medieval Islamic ruler). This means that the cultural sphere is treated rather better than the political one, but for that there are better books (which Fierro’s bibliography directs you to).

I spent most of the first half of the volume twitching every time I came across the phrase “the sources tell us…” though. The sources for the Umayyad court are as or more problematic as those for the Carolingian court, in that they were mostly generated by or for that court, and therefore give us very little sense of what the opposition thought they were doing; also, in the Andalusi case, the key ones largely exist only in much later manuscripts or extracts, less faithful than is sometimes claimed, by other authors. The former problem, Fierro does address in an appendix, though not so as to solve it (no-one else has, after all) ; the latter one she doesn’t really touch. In the end, one has to reach the appendix before we know that she knows the problems and has made her decision about what can be used, but the keen critic might wish that she explained the basis for this decision in a few more places in the text. That, and a rather butterfly touch in arrangement which repeatedly sidetracks the reader somewhere unhelpful before resuming a theme, are the only criticisms I’d really raise against a neat little book that does a reasonable job of explaining why cAbd al-Rahman III al-Nasir and the title he took mattered in his world.

The ruins of the caliphal palace of Madinat al-Zahra', Córdoba

The ruins of the caliphal palace of Madinat al-Zahra’, Córdoba

Actually, the two things I was most interested to learn (though, you know, I did know some of it) were not so much to do with his actions. Firstly, something I had read before but I’d forgotten, his mother was a Basque princess, so this leader of the Arabic world was blond and fair-skinned. The only reason that this mattered to anyone was that the Fatimids could claim descent from Arabian caliphs on both sides of their family; the Christian mother was no greater a stigma than a fully-Islamic woman from Egypt would have been. Skin colour just wasn’t the issue. It’s always timely to be reminded that some parts of the medieval world really didn’t bother with ethnicity-by-birth the way we have been trained to avoid.

The other thing was nothing to do with him at all, but with his son al-Hakam, who eventually succeeded him as caliph, but in his considerable adult life as heir apparent mainly busied himself with books. He was a great patron of learning, much treated therefore in poetry and history especially by Ahmad and Isa’ al-Razi, father and son chroniclers. His library was immense, and so since we know that a copy of Orosius’s Histories against the Pagans was brought to al-Andalus and translated by his order into Arabic so that he could read it, it has been suggested that the surviving Arabic text that we have of Orosius, which adds a short chronicle about Visigothic Spain, was al-Hakam’s own work. (Fierro mentions the possibility, which is why it comes up now). It sounds bizarre, but he did collect the sort of texts that might have enabled him to do it. And one of them was Catalan. (This is the point at which Simon MacLean, with whom I’ve been discussing this text by e-mail, can stop reading, because he saw this musing already…)

In 940, you see, Bishop Godmar II of Girona was part of an embassy sent by his master Marquis Sunyer of Barcelona to negotiate peace with the caliph now that a rebellion in Saragossa was over that had permitted Sunyer to start taking tribute from a couple of Andalusi cities. That stopped, though as I’ve mentioned this didn’t stop them taking over Tarragona as soon as cAbd al-Rahman III took the pressure off. But in 940 it was important to win favour, and so among the gifts that were taken south Godmar added a work of his own, a Book of Histories of the Kings of the Franks. Unfortunately a very garbled list of kings given by the Iraqi traveller and historian al-Mas cUdi, who died in 957 and so must have seen a copy very close to al-Hakam’s own, is all that remains of it. (The article on him in Wikipedia says he saw it in Egypt, but also thinks Godmar was an Andalusi, so I doubt its fact-checking.) This is immensely frustrating, because I (and probably others) would absolutely love to know how a Catalan bishop in the days of early seigneurial takeover saw his notional royal masters. Alas, it is lost.

The improvements made by al-Hakam II (as Caliph) to the Mosque of Córdoba

The improvements made by al-Hakam II (as Caliph) to the Mosque of Córdoba

Just take one more moment to tease out the implications, though. Godmar presumably thought that such a present wouldn’t be considered a snub, but would instead be greeted with interest. Al-Hakam’s reputation must therefore have been known in Catalonia; was Godmar in touch with scholars in Córdoba? Whom did he meet when he went there? Did this amateur historian meet the professionals like the Razis? Could they converse? Was his Arabic or their Latin good enough? Did he see the embassy more as a chance to meet scholars, or was he trying to show that he was good enough to walk into a court he knew was full of them? And bear in mind too, that al-Hakam wasn’t caliph yet, his father would rule for twenty more years. So if someone brings a present that al-Hakam will love (and apparently allow to be copied), does that mean that the son has his father’s especial ear, or that cAbd al-Rahman himself was an antiquarian of sorts, or that Godmar was just touchingly naïf? So many little possibilities hang off this book that, like Fierro’s, tried to translate one culture for the enlightenment of its neighbours…