Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Samuel England (SE): First of all, I became fascinated with the anxious lives that courtly people led. Figures like al-Sahib Ibn ‘Abbad, ‘Umara the Yemeni, and Don Juan Manuel imbued their belles-lettres with false modesty and vicious little barbs. It seemed to me implausible that their motivation was limited to their personal relationships with the courtiers whom they addressed, which was what most intellectual histories had assumed. I arrived at the conclusion that a great many of these moments of insult, coercion, and self-promotion advanced larger imperial goals that the authors (who generally also held high political posts) had in mind. Not only did that seem more plausible to me than the standard narrative, but it also animated my reading of the whole category of the Middle Ages. I began to see the era’s politics in a new light, which I could not have fully appreciated without an understanding of medieval literature in Arabic and Romance languages. 

Secondly, I sensed that real problems were holding back our modern critical conversation on medieval culture, especially in Arabic studies. The field is very territorial. In my experience, too many scholars take shots at each other over questions of authority and minor philological details, rather than engaging in good faith the new arguments that are coming out. Even if my contribution is small, relative to the general structure of my field, it is a sincere attempt at thesis-driven work, and a statement against disciplinary gatekeeping. I hope that my book encourages open debate among scholars of culture, and Arabists in particular.

An equally timely problem I think the book addresses is even more widespread: scholarship on premodern arts is still not historicist enough. That is especially true of literature. We are still trying to shake off the restrictive theories that our predecessors wrote over the past century—claims about organic unity, “the world of the epic” and its inherent harmony, the constricted religious viewpoint of “medieval man,” etc. Colleagues of mine are working hard to change all that right now. I wanted to be a part of their ongoing effort when I wrote Medieval Empires and the Culture of Competition.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SE: It covers Classical Arabic poetry and official prose, Spanish court documents, Galician Portuguese lyric, and Italian narrative works. The historical span is 950-1350 CE.

Beginning with the Persian Buyids’ takeover of the great Arab caliphate in Iraq, the book focuses upon the courtly struggles that marked and articulated geopolitical conflicts. The struggle over high culture—who best qualified as a poet, the questions of race and religion in forming a courtier, what languages to use in which official ceremonies—informs the crusades, to which the book moves first with the example of Saladin. By exploring how the sultan formed a vigorous court to produce Arabic martial literature, I examine the crusades as the engine of cultural production in the Mediterranean.

From that point, Medieval Empires and the Culture of Competition makes its shift to Latinate sources with the profusion of sovereign literature in thirteenth-century Spain, where Alfonso X fashioned himself into a crusading king as well as a combative troubadour. His court would lay the groundwork for the last cultural movement analyzed in this study, the fictions of Saladin and the crusades in Spanish and Italian narrative. It is there that I present my findings on Don Juan Manuel, along with Boccaccio and Dante.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

SE: Before publishing the book, I had written a number of articles on premodern and modern Arabic. A point to which I kept returning in those short studies was that modern Arab intellectuals have never really stopped reading and rewriting medieval sources in their own works. Even the most stridently modernist writers, who scold other Arabs for being too nostalgic, connect deeply to venerable texts like the Epistle of Forgiveness by al-Ma‘arri (d. 449 H/1058 CE), just to take one example of a piece that has inspired a huge amount of today’s literature and drama.

So, when I wrote Medieval Empires and the Culture of Competition, it helped me to understand why certain premodern works and authors remain so compelling in the fields of performance and literary production. The simplistic explanation is that al-Ma‘arri, or Alfonso X, or Dante, was a genius. But I think the more interesting answer has to do with the rapport these medieval writers maintained with their colleagues and their own audiences, the people who lived with them. Reading their works now is an invitation to imagine the full scope of such courtly relationships. The literature holds our interest not just because it is aesthetic or ingenious but because it is a communal project, even if the members of that community did not get along very well.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SE: I am very happy to think that medievalists will read it. Beyond that, I am flattered to think that scholars of antiquity and modernity might read it. And, if non-academics read it, then I am ecstatic. The more the merrier, of course.

I guess I am an old-fashioned believer in the value of liberal arts—your basic pro-humanities soapbox speech. It is important that I read good new books coming out on Sappho, the stories of Dhat al-Himma’s exploits, studies on drone warfare, the history of batik dyes, and Edmo Zarife’s career in Brazilian media. In other words, I like to learn what my colleagues are researching. A clear, bold argument is more important to me than the specialty or subspecialty that a book is supposed to represent. I think I offer a new argument about the Middle Ages, and I hope people will enjoy my writing and the topic enough to see how I shape that argument.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SE: My next book is provisionally titled Dictating the Middle Ages: Classical Arabic Performance in Modern Military Regimes. It directly approaches the point I mentioned above, about how Classical Arabic from past centuries inhabits the world now.

The kernel of my current project may be found in the concluding section of Medieval Empires and the Culture of Competition, when the study turns to literature festivals of the Iraqi Ba‘ath Party during Saddam Hussein’s rule. As I concluded my first book, I found that the most effective means of showing my reader the impact of long-term medieval movements was for me to investigate their many revivals over the past century. After completing Medieval Empires and the Culture of Competition, I kept coming upon revival stories—in archives, state-sponsored dramatic works, historical fiction, poems, and writers’ personal correspondence. Dictating the Middle Ages is my way of bridging my premodern and modern interests, and more importantly, a message to my field that it is not just Islamists who love to talk about medieval glory. Secular military governments rely upon the Classical tradition to legitimate themselves, and oftentimes writers take an active role in that political effort. 

J: What’s a motivation for your teaching and research that would surprise readers?

SE: The Peugeot 504. I realize that it may not seem relevant to my daily work but, if I ever somehow earn royalties from anything I write, I am going to indulge myself and see if I can afford to buy one of those pokey old Peugeots. A close friend of mine in Egypt convinced me long ago that it was the world’s strongest car. We took a ride along the Red Sea coast in the massive station-wagon model that they call the “Break” in French auto-speak. I have never questioned my friend since; that 504 was extremely powerful. Every year, Egypt boasts fewer and fewer specimens of the once-mighty national generic taxi model. The 504 is noble and deserves better than the scrapyards that it is filling, in Egypt and throughout the Middle East.


Excerpt from Medieval Empires and the Culture of Competition Literary Duels at Islamic and Christian Courts, chapter two:

The Sovereign and the Foreign: Creating Saladin in Arabic Literature of the Counter-Crusade

During the late Abbasid era, the vizierate had become its own industry of cultural contention. As Saladin’s (532–89 H, 1137–93 CE) dynasty consciously adopted Abbasid models of authority and literary means of courtly ascent, the new sultanate fashioned a new such industry. Ayyubid intellectuals around Saladin saw that emphasising administrative prowess – his and their own – in literature had paid dividends for both the Abbasids to whom Saladin cannily pledged fealty and for the Fatimids, whose Egyptian caliphate he would supplant. What was starkly different was the existential threat of the Crusades in many of the cities and fortresses where Islamic rule was supposed to be most powerful. In the centre of the military campaign, courtiers consolidated their ideological efforts around the vital figure of the ruler. Viziers, knights, legal officials, and secretaries engaged one another in order to articulate an effective counter-crusade. Through their ongoing work to win advantage in the court system, they compunctiously maintained some of the rituals of the outgoing Fatimid caliphate in Egypt, while appealing to the more hegemonic Abbasid notion of adab. Composing adab texts allowed Crusades-era authors to claim the kinds of authority enjoyed by Buyid administrators generations earlier in Iraq and Iran. It also gave Saladin’s court key intellectual credentials as it marshalled support for the Levantine military campaign. The discourse of repelling and dominating the Crusaders required authors to contribute not just martial poetics but also a narrative of progressively mastering the enemy. Their texts meant to comprehend dangerous foreigners by using the material knowledge Muslim elites developed at court.

For authors, the social, political, and economic ravages of war seem to have been more of a boon to their livelihood than a threat. The games in which they were engaged for recognition logically fit into the larger struggle for control of the Levant. Framed by the counter-crusade, they acquired a sense of motivation, immediacy, and urgency as courtiers explored well-established rituals of literary contention. Along with the reassuringly unitary image of an invader, they also sought benefit from the presence of a dynamic, literarily minded sultan at the centre of the production. Saladin provided the court with an actively fighting object of praise and a type of organising principle that the courts had not had for several generations. The Ayyubid sultanate, a dynasty of great importance to Islamic cultural development and political history despite its relatively short period of sovereignty, enjoyed a particular form of success unknown to those regimes preceding and succeeding it in the Levant. Faced with a unique cosmopolitan experience of Crusader war, poets constructed an image of the Ayyubid ruler that I term ‘panegyric concordance’: they tapped the hyperbole of their own tradition to make Saladin necessarily world-conquering and just beyond their own powers of description. The sense of an unfinished portrait of glory helped to make the literary craftsman indispensable, the potential challenges from his peers ever-present but also involved in a collaborative effort to form the mot juste for Saladin.

At the same time, the less glamorous but equally contentious exchanges of literature instrumentalised war in multiple genres. Their results in text were highly evocative, and continue to play a paradigmatic role in literature. Fascinating, alien ifranj (‘Franks’, Arabic writers’ catchall to describe Western European enemies) lent invective poetry a special telos, as we will see in the last moments of official Fatimid rule, when Muslim armies were just beginning to gain momentum against the Crusaders in the Levant.1 It is well documented in scholarship that Ayyubid poets consciously reproduced previous stylistic idioms, many of them from Abbasid war poetry. We find the residues of Byzantine and Persian stereotypes in counter-Crusades literature, the familiar enemies providing fodder for new ones. But that observation does not take into account the unprecedented events occasioned by the Crusades, nor their effect upon the production of court texts. For the first time, Islamic sovereignty over one of its three holiest cities had been overpowered by non-Muslims who were furthermore uncontrolled desecrators in Arabic descriptions. Poets and chancery scribes practised their respective arts in places bearing the signs of both Crusader-inflicted damage and collaboration between the enemy and co-opted Muslim officials. Because the threat was multiple, and revealed the conflicted loyalties of Muslim subjects, elites in the empire needed to imagine a reassuring singular figure presiding over the court. In the course of two generations, the elite intellectual sphere would come to group around Saladin. As political and military leader, successful antagonist to Crusade forces, courtly conspirator, and of course patron, he provided a logical centre-point for literary creation. His literary persona synthesised the major thematic ‘objectives’ (aghrad) of the era’s poetry: through him, the court exalted in panegyric, tapped the imagery of amorous verse, ridiculed enemies, and called the populace to arms. In official prose documents, too, scribes wrote the language of political authority into his pronouncements and their own descriptions of his sultanate. Then, in Europe, Saladin would become a versatile and potent caricature in Western literature during the eight centuries following his death, a phenomenon addressed in this book’s final chapter.

The scenario of politically minded belles-lettres centring around an extraordinary individual anticipates modern academic treatments of Saladin. He presents us with a major challenge as we undertake a sociopolitical, historicist critique of the court – not because of any inherent features of his reign but because modern writers still contend with the fantastic elements of his European portrayals from the Middle Ages onward. While he is among the most studied figures in Islamic history, the copious poetry produced for and about him is largely terra incognita for philologists and critics. The trend has attracted notice in recent decades, even as little work has been produced to reverse it. ‘The Sultan loved poetry,’ Robert Irwin notes.

He was saturated in it. He knew by heart the Hamasa of Abu Tammam. Saladin even composed poetry himself. Besides Arabic, he seems to have some Persian … We won’t fully understand Saladin … until we come to grips with the role of poetry in shaping [his] ideals and sensibilities.

Saladin’s well-documented poetic attachments and sophistication are, as Irwin contends, ample reason to begin studying him as a major figure in Arabic literary history. His Persian knowledge and his reputation as an author – bringing to mind Ibn Abbad – are not proven in documents of his own court. If it is true that Saladin composed literature, such texts have not been discovered. What survives, however, is the work of his courtiers, the focus of this chapter.

Judged from a Formalist remove, there is little that is exceptional about the texts of Saladin’s court. Much as his political role was distinct but not revolutionary, literary norms were by no means upended during his tenure. The sultan’s politics themselves were very much a logical function of his predicament first in Syria, where he became a military officer, and in Egypt during the twilight of Fatimid rule, where he achieved supremacy. There can be no doubt, however, that his reign created distinct paradigms for his Ayyubid successors and the much longer-lived Mamluk regime that would go on to dominate the region. What distinguishes his reign, so far as literary culture is concerned, is the unique role that Classical Arabic writers assigned him over two centuries of textual production. During his ascendancy and reign, but even more so in retrospective work of historical adab, Saladin became an uncommonly potent symbol of ideology and individual monarchical rule.

The sultan was, as befitted any logocentric ruler, an arbiter of taste. But what will compel our critical attention is his extraordinary status as a literary fiction, a figure invented for the many ideological purposes that literature served in his time. To articulate the name Saladin in the context of studying medieval Islamic life is to invoke multiple historic and artistic identities – this was true during his lifetime and is perhaps even more the case now. This chapter will attempt to understand the first such identity formation, the process by which poets and prose writers strove to make the sultan an icon, and the consequences that process had for the Middle Ages. I will examine two distinct but deeply interdependent forms of competition in literature, one in the service of the other. The poetic contests of the kind we have seen in the Abbasid empire continued under Saladin and, for the most part, set the same priorities as antecedent courts had done. But they also set the terms for a larger conflict. Throughout Saladin’s vizierate and then his sultanate, his courtiers designed a literary Saladin who held the promise of success against the Crusades. He relieved the trauma of the Franks’ presence in Islamic territory and the radical difference that they represented to the Muslim administrative class of society.

Samuel England, Medieval Empires and the Culture of CompetitionLiterary Duels at Islamic and Christian Courts (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017).