Post-classical history

Outremer: Intercultural Relations

The social and political organization of the Frankish states in Outremer did not favor the development of deep intercultural relations among their diverse ethnic-religious communities. Nonetheless, such relations existed, both at a learned and at a popular level; they were probably weaker and less fruitful in Outremer than in other frontier societies, such as Iberia or Sicily, but they produced a notable impact on contemporary European culture.

The Linguistic Context

The dominant spoken language among the indigenous population was Arabic. There were also speakers of Greek, Armenian, and Syriac, and these languages, as well as Hebrew, were used as languages of culture and worship, the choice depending on traditional loyalties. A community might use different languages for different kinds of texts: Jews wrote religious and poetic texts in Hebrew, but scientific, philosophical, and grammatical texts in Arabic.

Franks could not usually speak, understand, or read Arabic; there were exceptions, like the knight Philip Mainebeuf, mentioned in the Gestes des Chiprois as leading diplomatic negotiations with the Mamlûks on the eve of the final Frankish defeat in 1291. Latin and French sources considered such persons worth mentioning precisely because they were rare.

Outremer was a multilingual, not a polyglot society; but since it was also a segmented society, it was not endangered by the poor interlinguistic skills of most of its members. Communicative problems were solved in various ways, according to the situation; learned exchanges were different from merchants’ transactions. The burden of learning the language of the other often rested (not surprisingly) on the shoulders of the indigenous population. Eastern Christians were especially suitable for the role of intermediaries, since they were mostly Arabic-speaking, but were considered closer to the Franks and more reliable than Muslims or Jews.

Translations from Arabic

Some leading figures of the Western scientific renaissance spent some time in the Latin East, and possibly acquired knowledge, curiosities, or manuscripts there. The philosopher and translator Adelard of Bath was in the principality of Antioch around 1114, possibly for a few years; the great mathematician Leonard of Pisa (known as Fibonacci) visited Syria, and was a friend and a correspondent of Theodore of Antioch, philosopher to Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Sicily.

The city of Antioch (mod. Antakya, Turkey) was one of the main centers of cultural exchange in the Latin East, thanks to its mixing of Greek, Latin, and Arabic elements. It was there that in 1127 Stephen of Pisa translated an important Arabic medical treatise, the Kitāb al-Malakl (Royal Book) by ‘Alī ibn al-‘Abbās al-Majûsî. To his translation (the Regalis dispositio) Stephen appended an alphabetical catalogue of Dioscorides’s technical terminology (Medicaminum omnium breviarium), giving Greek words with Arabic and, occasionally, Latin equivalents. This was one of the most complete medical glossaries of its time, and was the major source of Simon of Genoa’s popular list, Synonyma, compiled at the end of the thirteenth century. Stephen was probably also the author of an astronomical treatise; in spite of the title (Liber Mamonis in astronomia a Stephano philosopho translata), this was an original work, presenting Ptolemaic astronomy and criticizing Western cosmographical representations. The same Stephen was perhaps the copyist of a twelfth-century manuscript of the Latin Rhetorica ad Herennium.

Antioch is connected with the most successful medieval translation from Arabic, the Secretum Secretorum from around 1220: this is the Latin version of the Kitāb Sirr al- ‘Asrār (Book of the Secret of Secrets), a popular collection of texts of political, philosophical, and medical content. Its author was a cleric named Philip, who found the Arabic manuscript of the text in Antioch, but who was apparently working in Tripoli (mod. Trâblous, Lebanon), since he dedicated its work to the local bishop. We can tentatively identify Philip with a cleric of that name from central Italy, an expert in medicine who in his youth had come to the Holy Land with his uncle Raniero, patriarch of Antioch. Later Philip became a canon and archdeacon of Tripoli, then went back to Italy, where he was active at the papal court until around 1270. Philip’s version of the Kitāb Sirr al-Asrār is careful and clear, although it often misunderstands the Arabic text, adjusting it to its Western Christian audience. In Europe it soon replaced the partial translation done in the twelfth century by John of Seville: it was copied, translated, and rewritten hundreds of times, its composite structure allowing all kinds of additions, abridgements, and reinterpretations.

Intercultural relations at a learned level in Outremer did not necessarily imply knowledge of Arabic or direct access to Arabic texts. For example, the Gesta orientalium prin- cipum written by the great historian William of Tyre was mainly based on Christian Arabic sources, which were utilized with the help of interpreters or written translations. It is no coincidence that this work, the first extensive Western account of Muslim history, did not have a great diffusion in the West and is now lost: William’s curiosity and open-mindedness were uncommon for his age. But he apparently did not know Arabic, at least to judge from his extant literary production. The same holds true for the Dominican friar William of Tripoli, who in Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel) wrote a short religious treatise, the Notitia Machometi (1271), on the basis of an unidentified summary of Muslim history and, possibly, on Jewish sources and oral information. William’s text was addressed to an eminent pilgrim to the Holy Land: Tebaldo Visconti, archdeacon of Liège (later pope as Gregory X); it aimed to supply some basic notions of the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the Islamic religion. A few years later it was used in Europe by an anonymous compiler of a rather influential booklet on Islam, De statu Sarracenorum, for a long time erroneously ascribed to the same William of Tripoli.

The Eastern Christian Contribution

It is difficult to appreciate the conditions and patterns of intercultural contacts at a popular level, where they were certainly more frequent and intense, and presumably produced richer results. Once again, one has to stress the role played by Eastern Christians. They often lived in the same towns (and to a much lesser extent, villages) as the Franks, shared the same courts of justice, and visited the same holy sites; yet they spoke Arabic, Armenian, or Syriac, had their own repertoire of traditions and legends, and were constantly in touch with their co-religionists beyond the frontiers of the Frankish states. These frontiers were easily crossed in both directions by Eastern pilgrims and scholars, such as Abû Sulaymûn Dâwûd, Bar Hebraeus (Bar Ebroyo), and Theodore of Antioch, who studied and worked comfortably in both Christian and Muslim lands.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a host of legends entered western Europe from Outremer: they were mostly of Eastern Christian origin or at least were diffused among the Franks by Eastern Christians. Some of these legends, like those of the Three Kings and of Prester John, had a long life of their own in Western culture. Many more are now forgotten, but were very popular in their time: for example, the story of the wondrous icon of the Virgin preserved in the Melkite monastery of Saydnaya near Damascus, which was diffused in the West by the Templars and appeared in the main collections of Marian miracles of the thirteenth century, Les Miracles de Notre Dame by Gautier de Coincy and the Cantigas de Santa Maria by King Alfonso X of Castile. Interestingly enough, it seems that the icon was venerated also by Muslims, an unusual example of worshippers of different religions sharing a common cultic practice. We can also mention the story of the miracle of the walking mountain, believed to have taken place outside Cairo (or Baghdad, in other versions) and saved the life of the local Christian community; and the legend of the dangerous whirlpool of the Gulf of Satalia, connected with the ancient myth of the Gorgon, which became so famous in the West that it produced a shift in meaning of the Old French word gouffre: from“gulf” to “whirlpool, vortex.”

Eastern Christians were also responsible for spreading among the Franks information (or often misinformation), prophecies, and negative legends about Muslims and their religion, which emanated from their rich stock of anti- Islamic writings. During the siege of Damietta in 1220-1221, three pamphlets circulated in the crusader army: all of them were of Eastern Christian origin and predicted a defeat of the Muslims; they were so enthusiastically received that the crusader leaders decided to turn down Ayyûbid peace proposals, and in the end had to face a heavy defeat. Anti-Islamic polemical writings from Outremer, translated into Latin or vernacular languages, were often brought or sent to Western kings or popes, as was reported in the thirteenth century by Vincent of Beauvais and Matthew Paris.

Direct Contacts between Franks and "Saracens"

If Eastern Christians were often intermediaries between Franks and Muslims, direct relations did also exist between the latter two groups. Political, military, and economic contacts could produce a variable degree of familiarity with some aspects of the other culture. This was the case with the Franciscan Yves le Breton, who, according to John of Joinville, was sent in 1250 on a diplomatic mission to Damascus; there the friar, who knew Arabic, heard a story about a famous eighth-century Muslim saint and mystic, Rābi‘a al-‘Adawiyya al-Qaysiyya, that he reported to his fellow Franks on his return to Acre. The Arab poet Usāma ibn Munqidh, emir of Shaizar, evoked in his memoirs the respectful and chivalrous relations he had enjoyed in his youth with some Frankish knights. At a lower level, there was occasionally a convergence of Muslims and Franks at common shrines and holy places, as for example in the case of the Virgin of Saydnaya.

There are two Muslim historical characters that, between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, gained an enormous popularity in the West: Saladin, the Ayyûbid sultan and conqueror of Jerusalem (1187), and the Old Man of the Mountains, Rashid al-Dīn Sinān (d. 1192), head of the Syrian branch of the Ismā‘īlī sect of the Assassins. Outremer was only the point of departure for the elaboration of these myths that took shape in Europe. Surprisingly, the myth was positive in the case of Saladin, regarded as the paradigm of a generous and wise monarch, and also, at least in the beginning, in the case of the Assassins, whose name in Occitan lyric is associated with absolute faithfulness, only later on assuming negative connotations, and finally becoming a synonym for “killer.”

Intercultural contacts in Outremer produced mutual effects: the indigenous population was variously influenced by the encounter with the Latin cultural world, and this influence spread far beyond the Frankish states, a topic beyond the scope of this entry. One can, however, mention Western legends concerning the Virgin Mary that were translated into Arabic in Dominican circles in Acre around 1270 and subsequently entered the religious traditions of Copts and Ethiopians; and the transmutation of King Baldwin I of Jerusalem into a literary character in the Arabic epic cycle of Banû Hilāl, which portrayed him as being defeated by the local hero Abû Zayd.

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