The Kingdom of Sicily, 1100-1250: A Literary History

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University of Pennsylvania Press, Incorporated, Aug 25, 2005 - Literary Criticism - 214 pages
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When Muslim invaders conquered Sicily in the ninth century, they took control of a weakened Greek state in cultural decadence. When, two centuries later, the Normans seized control of the island, they found a Muslim state just entering its cultural prime. Rather than replace the practices and idioms of the vanquished people with their own, the Normans in Sicily adopted and adapted the Greco-Arabic culture that had developed on the island. Yet less than a hundred years later, the cultural and linguistic mix had been reduced, a Romance tradition had come to dominate, and Sicilian poets composed the first body of love lyrics in an Italianate vernacular.

Karla Mallette has written the first literary history of the Kingdom of Sicily in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Where other scholars have separated out the island's literature along linguistic grounds, Mallette surveys the literary production in Arabic, Latin, Greek, and Romance dialects, in addition to the architectural remains, numismatic inscriptions, and diplomatic records, to argue for a multilingual, multicultural, and coherent literary tradition.

Drawing on postcolonial theory to consider institutional and intellectual power, the exchange of knowledge across cultural boundaries, and the containment and celebration of the other that accompanies cultural transition, the book includes an extensive selection of poems and documents translated from the Arabic, Latin, Old French, and Italian. The Kingdom of Sicily, 1100-1250 opens up new venues for understanding the complexity of a place and culture at the crossroads of East and West, Islam and Christianity, tradition and innovation.

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About the author (2005)

1. Toward a Literary History of the Kingdom of Sicily

In the year 1184, Ibn Jubayr, an Andalusian returning from the Meccan pilgrimage, was shipwrecked in Sicily. At the time he arrived, the Normans, who had seized control of the island from the Muslims, had been in power for a little more than a century. The great Norman king Roger II had ruled and died; his son William I had ruled and died. The current Sicilian monarch, William II, welcomed the travelers to Sicily in person, and paid the landing fee for the Muslims on Ibn Jubayr''s ship. In his account of his visit to Sicily, which forms one chapter of his description of his travels through the Mediterranean, Ibn Jubayr describes William and his court in some detail. He counts William''s admiration of Islamic learning and tolerance of Islamic religious practice at his court among the wonders that he witnessed on his journey. He also takes pains to illustrate through interviews and anecdotes the difficult daily lives of Muslim Sicilians. From these paradoxical elements, Ibn Jubayr attempts to produce a coherent portrait of a Christian land where Muslim visitors are honored and Islamic learning and culture are embraced in the royal court, but Muslim citizens endure economic and religious injustices, mourn the fall of the Islamic state, and dream of escape to a better land.

In the introductory section of his chapter on Sicily, Ibn Jubayr describes Messina, the first Sicilian city he visited. And he lays out programmatically the paradox of Muslim-Christian cohabitation on the island. Following these prefatory comments, he describes his travels through Sicily by relating events in the order in which they occur. But in the introductory section his organization is thematic, rather than chronological. He aims to convey to his readers the central difficulty he encountered in Sicily. The island''s Muslim conquerors have themselves been conquered, and the culture that is now emerging resists categorization. Ibn Jubayr is a vigorous and effective narrator, and he finds an evocative way to represent the ambiguity of Sicilian culture.

Sicily''s approach is announced to the travelers on board Ibn Jubayr''s ship by a glimpse of one of the island''s best-known landmarks, Etna--jabal al-nar, the "Mountain of Fire" in Arabic. Soon after they catch sight of the volcano, a storm arises and blows the travelers into the strait between the Italian mainland and the island, where the ship founders on rocks. Ibn Jubayr heightens the drama of the scene by telling us that the seas in the strait of Messina seethe around the ship like boiling water, and he compares the force of the waters to the "bursting of the dam." He refers to the dam of Ma''rib, which collapsed under the pressure of flood waters with such destructive effect that it constituted an epoch-making event for the Arab tribes, and is remembered in the Qur''an (34:16). After this stirring episode, he describes his arrival in Sicily, his visit to the Norman monarch''s court, and his meetings with Muslim businessmen and merchants. Later in his narrative, Ibn Jubayr lists some of the natural wonders of Sicily, returning finally to the most renowned of Sicily''s marvels--Mount Etna. In describing Etna, he repeats a metaphor he had used while describing the shipwreck. Here are the culminating sentences of his description: "There is a lofty mountain on the island known as the Mountain of Fire. A marvelous thing is reported concerning it, and that is that during certain years fire comes forth from it like the bursting of the dam. It burns everything it passes until it reaches the sea, and then it rides atop the surface of the waves until it sinks beneath them [emphasis added]." The image of the dam of Ma''rib recurs: fire bursts from Etna like the waters bursting through the dam. In both this passage and the shipwreck scene, Ibn Jubayr quotes the words used in the Qur''an to describe the event. The repetition of the Qur''anic phrase brackets the introductory section, and sets it off from the chronological description of Ibn Jubayr''s travels in Sicily that follows. They leave in the reader''s mind a sense of awesome and antagonistic natural forces, encouraging us to see Sicily as a theater of remarkable phenomena.

In his prefatory comments to the description of his visit to Sicily, Ibn Jubayr details what is most strange and disturbing in the Sicilian situation. His ship, on arriving at the port of Messina after the harrowing shipwreck, had been greeted by William II, who himself paid the landing fee for all the Muslims on board the ship--the first of the marvels of Sicily we read about that is not connected with natural phenomena. Ibn Jubayr catalogues the wonders of the court of William II, the "Orientalist" Christian monarch, whom he commends for his learning and in particular for his admiration of Muslim culture and his promotion of Muslim men of learning at his court. William speaks Arabic. Like contemporary Muslim princes, he uses an ''alama, an Arabic royal title, on coinage, in architectural inscriptions, and in the heading of his official documents. He retains Muslim physicians and astrologers. Ibn Jubayr''s description of William''s court culminates with a famous anecdote of an earthquake, when the palace rang with the sound of William''s servants--many of whom observed Christian ritual publicly, in order to serve the monarch, but remained Muslims in belief--calling on Allah, in the moment of crisis, for preservation. William, unperturbed, said only, "Let each of you call upon the god you have faith in; let that bring peace to you."

Ibn Jubayr consistently describes Christian tolerance of Muslim Sicilians in general, and individual Christians'' kindness to him and his fellow travelers, in tones of wonder--as he does the flames of Etna. At the same time, he dwells on the suffering of Muslim Sicilians, and the difficulties of their lives under Norman occupation. Alongside the marvels of Sicily, alongside the Mountain of Fire and the splendors of William''s court, he rehearses the details of Muslim-Christian cohabitation, attempting to understand what Sicily has become and what the future may hold for Muslim Sicilians. The turbulent and uncanny images of fire and water that bracket this introductory section may be read as a metaphor for the two populations. And his deployment of the same Qur''anic phrase to describe these two fantastic events--his use of the floodwaters of the burst dam to evoke both the seething sea and the lava surging from Etna toward the waters of the Mediterranean--evokes his fear of the shifting balance of power, and his anxiety concerning Christian ventriloquism of Muslim cultural practices, considered by many contemporary witnesses to be among the most disturbing marvels of Sicily.

Ibn Jubayr tells us that Muslim culture is respected and patronized by the Sicilian monarch. Yet the two instances of open toleration of individual Muslims by William II that he sketches come only in response to calamity. A tempest provokes the king''s payment of the landing fees for the shipwrecked Muslims, and an earthquake inspires his proclamation of religious tolerance. On the one hand, William admires Islamic culture and promotes it at his court. But on the other, it takes a natural disaster to draw from him acts of charity and tolerance toward his Muslim subjects. This interpretive knot--the balancing of tolerance and repression, the tension between Islamic culture and Muslim citizens--is the paradox at the center of Ibn Jubayr''s assessment of Sicily. The celebration of Islamic culture he witnessed in Sicily constituted the flaunting of a trophy culture. By promoting Islamic culture at his court, the Sicilian monarch expressed a gratifying recognition of the accomplishments of the Muslim world. But he also advertised the fact that, in Sicily, those accomplishments had come under the control of Christians. The Muslims who had conquered Sicily three and one-half centuries earlier had treasured its beauty and its riches. With the Norman conquest--which occurred at roughly the same time as the first Christian seizure of Muslim-occupied lands in the Iberian peninsula; Palermo fell to the Normans in 1070, and Christian forces took Toledo in 1072--the Muslims had lost a prized possession, as they had also in Ibn Jubayr''s native al-Andalus. Muslim Sicilians'' struggle for cultural and economic survival under Norman rule was as intricate and brutal as the battle of the elements Ibn Jubayr evokes in his descriptions of storms and volcanos. And Christian possession of Muslim culture may have appeared to the Muslim visitor as unnatural and disturbing as the fires that burst from a mountain like water through the burst dam of Ma''rib.

When the Normans occupied Sicily, along with the natural riches of the island, they took possession of its cultural wealth, its bureaucratic and cultural institutions. A hybrid culture emerged, one that used Islamic literary, artistic, and architectural conventions to celebrate a kingdom ruled by a Christian monarch. Under the Normans, Sicilian court poets wrote in Arabic. Following the death of William II, during the reign of Frederick II (1197-1250), Sicily would see an act of literary invention that was less extraordinary than the marvel Ibn Jubayr witnessed--Arabic cultural forms used to adorn and celebrate a Christian state--but more significant in its impact on subsequent literary history. During the thirteenth century, Sicilians would write the first substantial body of lyric poetry in an Italianate vernacular. Like fire morphing into water, the language of culture in Sicily underwent a rapid and radical transformation between the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries, a literary and linguistic revolution that remains one of the most striking and least understood chapters in medieval literary history.
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