Il-Kantilena: A 15th-century Poem in Medieval Maltese

Il-Kantilena by the Maltese poet and philosopher Pietru Caxaro (d. 1485) is the oldest known literary text in the Maltese language, and dates to the late 15th century. Since its discovery in the 1960s, much has been much written about this text and the implications for the historical understanding of medieval Malta. Unlike modern Maltese, which has a large number of loan words from Italian and English, Il-Kantilena is notable for its extensive Arabic vocabulary, demonstrating its relationship and proximity to the Sicilian Arabic spoken in Sicily during the 11th-13th century. The earliest comprehensive study of the poem is G. Wettinger and M. Fsadni. Peter Caxaro’s Cantilena (1968).

Il-Kantilena(Manuscript of Il-Kantilena. Source)

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“Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” Exhibit (Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University)

About two weeks ago, I had the privilege of visiting the wonderful “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” exhibit at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. It was a truly wonderful experience and the curator Dr. Kathleen Bickford Berzock should be congratulated on such a monumental achievement. As many observers have noted, this is the first major exhibition in the United States to closely consider the material culture of early trans-Saharan trade and to offer strong evidence of the central but little-recognized role Africa played in global medieval history. Among the materials on view are sculptures, jewelry, household and luxury objects, manuscripts and architectural remnants, all united by their connections to routes of exchange across the Sahara from the eighth to the 16th centuries. The exhibit includes an excellent collection of treasures and artifacts from West Africa, North Africa, the Middle East & Europe from late antiquity to the 20th century. It showcases the immense importance of trans-Saharan Africa as a pivotal part of the medieval world, and embodies the heart of the interconnected universe that many scholars are increasingly referring to as the Global Middle Ages. Weaving together art, archaeology, cartography history and literature to tell the story of an economically-vibrant and culturally-diverse medieval Africa, the exhibit has received an overwhelmingly positive reception, with one reviewer stating that

“Caravans of Gold” creates new points of reference by not only reveling in the beauty of the objects but also introducing viewers to the idea of a vibrantly interconnected global culture, including the sophisticated social, political, cultural, and economic systems of West Africa. So much of Africa’s relationship to Europe has involved defamation, appropriation, and control. Narratives highlighting the agency of West African people in the medieval period allow for a rediscovery of the continent’s rich history, cultures, and contributions to the evolution of global trade and culture. “Caravans of Gold” is an important gesture in helping people understand that Africa has always been connected to the world and can share its story on its own terms.

Another reviewer observes that the exhibit

doesn’t aim for less than decentering the idea that the medieval epoch should only be envisioned through a European lens, which are typically stories of feudalism, war, chivalry, and the Bubonic plague. These European sagas are the ones I grew up with, saw dramatized on television, and valorized in film. Caravans of Gold also seeks to put Islam at this reconstructed world’s fulcrum and regard it as a force which impelled cultural advance, rather than to associate it with iconoclastic destruction of historical patrimony — stories we know too well. Even more, it subtly raises up the entire African continent, which becomes through this retelling, a force of profound socioeconomic change at the global level.

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The Arabic Manuscripts of Manuel Bacas Merino (fl. 1800)

Here are some examples of the Arabic handwriting of the late 18th/early 19th-c. The Spanish scholar & Arabist Manuel Bacas Merino (d. after 1810) is most famous for his travels to Morocco during the late 18th century and his authorship of an Arabic grammar titled Compendio gramatical para aprender la lengua arábiga, así sabia como vulgar printed in Madrid in 1807.

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Less well-known, however, is that Bacas Merino also copied several medieval Andalusi manuscripts located in the Library of the Royal Monastery of El Escorial. An example of his activities as a copyist is this manuscript of al-Dabbī’s “Bughyat al-Multamis,” a 12th-c. biographical dictionary of Andalusi scholars. He copied it from El Escorial MS 1676 in 1806. It is now preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, digitized here. He also transcribed a copy of Ibn al-Abbār’s al-Ḥulla al-Siyarā’, a 13th-c. biographical dictionary, from El Escorial MS 1649, also preserved in the BnF in Paris and digitized here.

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For an overview & study of his works (and the broader context of Spanish Arabism in which he operated), see the (Spanish) article: Francisco Mocosa García, “El estudio del árabe marroquí en España durante el siglo XIX. La obra de Manuel Bacas Merino” http://digibug.ugr.es/handle/10481/2616.

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[Recently published] Azucena Hernández Pérez, “Catálogo razonado de los astrolabios de la España medieval” (2018)

A catalog of the astrolabes created in medieval Spain (including both al-Andalus and the Christian kingdoms) has recently been published by Azucena Hernández Pérez: http://laergastula.com/producto/catalogo-razonado-de-los-astrolabios-de-la-espana-medieval/

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Isma’il ibn Ali al-Razi (d. 1054) on Umar b. al-Khattab’s Honoring of al-Hasan b. Ali and al-Husayn b. Ali

The following tradition is taken from an eleventh-century work by the Persian Muslim scholar Ismā‘īl ibn ‘Alī ibn al-Ḥasan al-Rāzī (d. 445/1054) entitled Kitāb al-Muwāfaqa bayn Ahl al-Bayt wa-l Ṣaḥaba. Ismā‘īl ibn ‘Alī al-Rāzī was an eleventh-century scholar who had studied theology/hadith in Damascus (with ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Naṣr al-Tamīmī), Baghdad (with Abī Ṭāher al-Mukhalaṣ), Mecca (with both Aḥmad ibn Ibrahīm ibn Firās and Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn ‘Umar ibn al-Naḥās), and Rayy (with ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad ibn Fadalah). According to later scholars, he was inclined to the Mu’tazalite (rationalist) doctrine. He was also very well-versed (and wrote books on) Prophetic tradition (hadith), jurisprudence, and-according to the later Islamic scholar al-Dhahabī (d. 1348), he studied and taught Hanafi, Shafi’i, and Zaydi law.

This work was famously edited and commented upon by the famous Iranian Islamic scholar and exegete, Abū al-Qāsim al-Zamakhsharī (d. 1144). This tradition reveals the status of Ahl al-Bayt within Islam and shows how deeply rooted it is within the religious tradition. Moreover, this particular narration is important because it sheds light on the policy of the second caliph, ‘Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, with regard to the ‘atā’ (military stipend) and how it was based on the notion of sābiqa (precedence within Islam based on relatedness/closeness to the Prophet).  The translation is my own and is based on pp. 144–148 of the Mukhtaṣar Kitāb al-Muwāfaqa bayn Ahl al-Bayt wa-l Ṣaḥaba (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1999).  Continue reading

The Tomb of Ferdinand III (d. 1252) in Seville: Emblem of Convivencia or Symbol of Reconquista?

Perhaps one of the most interesting surviving monuments from late medieval Iberia is the tomb of Ferdinand III (r. 1217–1252). This sovereign had a monumental career and is best remembered as the unifier of Castile and León and as the conqueror of most of al-Andalus, greatly expanding the Castilian kingdom by annexing the vast majority of the lands of southern Iberia, including the major Muslim cities of Badajoz (1228), Cordoba (1236), Murcia (1243), Jaén (1246) and Seville (1248) among others. He was also responsible for establishing the treaty of vassalage with the Nasrid kingdom of Granada, a political reality that would be sustained for the next 250 years.

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