Post-classical history

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Document 15 IBN AL-QAYSARANI AND ‘IMAD AL-DIN AL-ISFAHANI ON FRANKISH WOMEN

(i) Ibn al-Qaysarani

When he was not writing poems lauding the virtues of Zangi and Nur al-Din, the court poet Ibn al-Qaysarani (1085–1154) wrote a number of poems on the beauty of Frankish women. Here are two examples.

By your religion, O priest of [the church of] Barbara, and that which you continued to recite in the dark night,

Protect me from the eloquent figures whenever they stand around you in the church.

When they draw near at the time of prayer, in every colour of satin,

With girdles encircling their waists, and vestments of silk brocade burdening them,

And the burdensomeness of their chaperones makes them sit (and the gathering [for Mass] protects them from that).

Were it not for refraining from sin against the requirements of my religion, I would go up to them in a chasuble,

And stand up to chant their Mass, without stupidity or muteness.

Their knights did not engage [anyone] braver or more perceptive than me in battle.

Truly, how lovely is that which passion stirs up in the coverts* of these retiring antelopes.

You see every charming woman, her face bare of a veil in the morning sun,

Because of the beauty of [the sight], the icons almost boil over with eloquence of the soul.

A Frankish woman, her necklace silent, but her girdle restless in its place,

When she kisses an image, draws near to it with her imperious eye.

Oh if only I were an effigy to her, she would see me, and there is no doubt that some part of me would be touched.

I swear, if I was able I would be changed into an image of Saint George.

* A pun on the Arabic root k-n-s, which includes both a church and a covert for animals. Women are often likened to gazelles or antelopes in Arabic poetry from the period.

A gentle Frankish woman has charmed me. The fragrance of her lingers.

In her garment are soft limbs, and in her crown is a radiant moon.

If there is blueness in her eye, then truly the head of a spear is blue.

Source: Muhammad ibn Nasr ibn al-Qaysarani. (1991) Shi‘r Ibn al-Qaysarani. Ed. ‘Adil J.S. Muhammad. Al-Zarqa’, Jordan: al-Wakalat al-‘Arabiyya li-l-Nashr wa-l-Tawzi‘, pp. 254–5 and 310.

(ii) ‘Imad al-Din al-Isfahani

Meanwhile, Saladin’s secretary, ‘Imad al-Din al-Isfahani [see Doc. 10], took a radically different view. Here he describes the arrival of Frankish women at Acre in 1189.

There arrived in a ship 300 Frankish women who were considered attractive, endowed with youth and adorned with beauty. They had gathered from the islands and devoted themselves to sin. They had emigrated to provide assistance to the foreigners, dedicated themselves to cheering the wretched, sustained themselves to provide help and support, and were burning for fornication and sex. […] Each trailed her head cloth on the ground behind her and bewitched her observer with her gracefulness. She swayed like a tree branch, revealed herself like a castle [waiting to be stormed], swung her hips like a switch and counterfeited her religion with a cross on her breast. […] They said that they intended by their coming out [to the east] to dedicate their privates [to the cause], that they would not refrain from any unmarried man, and that they were of the opinion that they would not receive a better Eucharist than this.

Al-Isfahani then provides an extended and lurid description of the activities that the women apparently engaged in, ending with the following:

According to the Franks there is no sin imputed to an unmarried man if a woman gives herself to him, and what enhances her in the eyes of the priests is if she offers her privates as a relief for those who are suffering as a result of their celibacy.

There also arrived by sea a woman who had great power and abundant wealth. In her country she was a woman of great influence. In her entourage were 500 knights with their horses, followers, servants and adherents, to whom she gave all the provisions that they needed, exceeding the necessary level of support in what she spent on them. They rode at her side, attacking when she attacked, rushing [into battle] when she did, and standing firm as long as she did.

Among the Franks were women knights, with armour and helmets, dressed like men, who distinguished themselves in the thick of battle and did acts of intelligent men while being gentlewomen. They considered these all to be acts of worship, and they believed that they would gain happiness through them and made them their customary practice. Praise be to the One who led them astray and made them slip off the path of restraint! […] They wore no clothing except a loose-fitting garment, and they were not known [to be women] until they were stripped of their arms and undressed. A number of them were found out and sold [as slaves], and as for the old women, the town centres were full of them! At times they were a reinforcement and at others a source of weakness. They goaded and incited [others to action], saying that the cross would only be satisfied by scorn [of the enemy], that there would be no immortality through it except through [fighting to the] death, and that the tomb of their god was under enemy occupation. Observe the agreement in error of their men and women!

Source: ‘Imad al-Din al-Isfahani. (1965) Al-Fath al-Qussi fi’l-Fath al-Qudsi, pp. 347–9.

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