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The aesthetics and precariousness of a popular text
Shamma Boyarin

This chapter begins with the argument that part of what drives the distinction between texts considered medieval masterpieces and those considered ‘popular’ is a (non-medieval) assumption about aesthetics. Masterpieces open themselves to analysis of style, form and literary elements of language (for example, metaphor, allusions to other texts, and so on); and those that survive in one or only very few versions provide a (modern) sense of an authorial hand in their crafting – even where the identity of an author is not known – a position tied to Romantic and modern ideas that art reflects an artist’s genius. Medieval ‘popular’ texts, on the other hand, are rarely recognised for their markers of literariness, perhaps because of the nature of their transmission and circulation: it is difficult to understand widely circulated medieval texts as reflections of a singular authorial intent. To the extent that we have found use for such texts in modern scholarship, we still use methodologies and critical approaches that pay little or no attention to questions of aesthetics and instead think primarily of their ‘cultural’ importance (socio-economic, gendered, religious, interreligious, etc). This chapter considers the case of the medieval ‘greatest hit’ known as the Alexander Romance, to show that its medieval transmitters did indeed consider its aesthetic qualities, and that we too should and can approach this text with an eye to its literary qualities, despite its wide circulation and existence in multiple versions and languages.

in Bestsellers and masterpieces
The changing medieval canon

Bestsellers and masterpieces: the changing medieval canon addresses the strange fact that, in both European and Middle Eastern medieval studies, those texts that we now study and teach as the most canonical representations of their era were in fact not popular or even widely read in their day. On the other hand, those texts that were popular, as evidenced by the extant manuscript record, are taught and studied with far less frequency. The most dramatic demonstration of this disparity can be found in the surprising number of medieval texts now regarded as ‘masterpieces’ that have survived in but a single copy, an unicum manuscript. On the European side this list includes Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Book of Margery Kempe, the Oxford Song of Roland, Hildebrandslied and El Poema de mio Cid. On the Arabo-Mediterranean side examples include Ibn Hazm’s Ṭawq al-ḥamāma (The Neck-Ring of the Dove), Usāma ibn Munqidh’s Kitāb al-I‘tibār (Memoirs of Usama ibn Munqidh) and ‘Abd Allāh Ibn Buluggīn’s Kitab al-Tibyan (Autobiography of Ibn Buluggin), works that enjoy a canonical status in the study of Arabic literature comparable to that of the European examples cited above in the West. Bestsellers and masterpieces provides cross-cultural insight into both the literary tastes of the medieval period and the literary and political forces behind the creation of the ‘modern canon’ of medieval literature.

Paul M. Cobb

Of all the Arabic works bearing upon the history of the Crusades in the Levant, none has been so warmly received as the Kitāb al-Iʿtibār or Book of Contemplation, by the Syrian warrior-poet Usama ibn Munqidh (d. 1188). Indeed, in the non-Arabic-speaking West, in studies academic and popular, in textbooks, anthologies, syllabuses and websites, Usama’s Book of Contemplation has become the first, and very often the only voice of Islamic perspectives on the Crusades. And yet the work was not particularly well known in its time, and survives only in one ragged and incomplete unicum manuscript. How do we account for this disjuncture? How is it that this once obscure work has become, after the Qur’an and The Thousand and One Nights, one of the best-loved texts of pre-modern Arabic literature in the West? This chapter traces the history of Usama’s work, sketching first what we know about its circulation in the medieval Islamic world and then its reception in European and American academic circles. But there is more to the prominence of Usama’s work than just its history of publication and translation. Rather, the work itself possesses features that have lent themselves to reformulation by translators and editors, preserving its cogency and immediacy even as fashions in the field of Crusades studies have come and gone.

in Bestsellers and masterpieces
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Beowulf and ‘popular reading’
Daniel C. Remein and Erica Weaver

Although it only survives in one half-burned copy, Beowulf is today both the star poem that begins countless British literature surveys and one of the few medieval texts with sufficient name recognition to receive a major movie adaptation under the same title as its scholarly edition. Yet the traditional account of the poem’s – relatively recent – rise to prominence hinges on a single essay. For a long time, Beowulf’s success has been attributed to J. R. R. Tolkien’s 1936 Israel Gollancz Memorial British Academy lecture, subsequently published as ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’, which is conventionally understood to have authorised the poem for literary study insofar as it frames Beowulf as worthy of aesthetic appreciation and analysis. Was Tolkien – together with the British Academy – really singularly responsible for delivering Beowulf to the literature classroom, the publishing industry and Hollywood? In this chapter, we ask what other stories we can tell about the poem, both in terms of its enduring appeal as a poem and its course through different institutional spaces and historical moments.

in Bestsellers and masterpieces
Boris Liebrenz

Today, the Ṭawq al-ḥamāma is not only the most famous work of the Andalusian scholar Ibn Ḥazm (d. 456 / 1064), it has become a nearly ubiquitous text: in the Arabic-speaking world it is found on school curricula and is widely read; on a global scale it has been translated into numerous languages; and it has not only sparked much scholarship, but has also inspired modern literary adaptations. It is considered a quintessential guide to the theme of love in Arabic literature. Yet this modern popularity is in stark contrast to its perilous transmission. How can it be that a text so fundamental today could have been transmitted to us on the feeble thread of a single manuscript, now held in Leiden? Its singularity, however, does not mean a lack of interest in the book between its inception and its rediscovery in the nineteenth century. The manuscript bears many traces of former possessors and readers, traces that have hitherto not been analysed. This chapter charts the path of this manuscript in the East, explains how it ended up in Leiden, and shows how it was first edited and popularised in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

in Bestsellers and masterpieces
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Heather Blurton and Dwight F. Reynolds

The Introduction addresses the strange fact that, in both European and Middle Eastern medieval studies, those texts that we now study and teach as the most canonical representations of their era were in fact not popular or even widely read in their day. On the other hand, those texts that were popular, as evidenced by the extant manuscript record, are taught and studied with far less frequency. The Introduction offers an overview of the situation from the perspectives of both the European and the Middle Eastern literary traditions.

in Bestsellers and masterpieces
Sharon Kinoshita

La Chanson de Roland was both a solitary masterpiece and a medieval bestseller: a solitary masterpiece in the sense that the text we today know as the Song of Roland survives in a single manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian MS Digby 23; but a ‘bestseller’ in the sense that the story it tells – of Roland’s death fighting the Saracens in Spain – was well known throughout the Middle Ages, as attested not only in the variant versions collectively known as Roncevaux but in a range of literary allusions, translations, visual representations and even onomastic evidence. No work from the French Middle Ages is better known, nor has been more argued about: it is one of the texts most likely to figure in school curricula and, since the nineteenth century, has been used to exemplify the precociousness of both medieval French literature and of French national identity. This chapter explores some of the discrepancies between the Roland’s political and literary significance in the modern era and the precariousness of its textual tradition. This includes a consideration of its history as a lieu de mémoire – beginning from the text itself, which encodes at least two distinct modalities of memory, both oral and written.

in Bestsellers and masterpieces
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Encyclopaedism and riddles in the tale of Tawaddud/Theodor
Christine Chism

This chapter tracks the pre-modern popularity of a tale of a scholarly slave girl who wins a knowledge contest over the greatest scholars of her time. It investigates what made the tale of Tawaddud/Teodor so gripping to its medieval readers and translators. The argument is simple: that the tale’s medieval appeal lay in its encyclopaedic capacity for making knowledge into worlds, with the added benefit of moral inculcation into the world it creates. However, this worlding is double-faced – so intimately translatable is this tale that it can be levied not only in the service of colonial indoctrination but also to spur decolonising popular resistance. The translations of this tale, then, enact a literal war of the worlds. The tale seems to have struck a global chord that resonated long beyond the medieval period, only to dwindle to relative obscurity in modern times. Tawaddud in Arabic means ‘To show love or affection, to attract, captivate.’ A looser translation might be ‘Beloved’, and like her counterpart in Toni Morrison’s novel, Tawaddud’s uncanny medieval afterlife is filled with translators who seem unable to let go of her. The chapter ends by charting the ripples of Tawaddud’s post-medieval translations and transculturations – to Spain and Europe, but also to the New World of the Maya, to nineteenth-century Brazil and to the Philippines.

in Bestsellers and masterpieces
Interpreting anti-Jewish imagery in the Poema de mio Cid manuscript
Ryan D. Giles

This chapter focuses on one of the episodes in the Poema de mio Cid that has attracted the most critical attention: the hero’s duping of two moneylenders, identified as Rachel and Vidas and understood to be Jews. Exiled by the king, the Cid borrows their money to fund his raids and conquests, leaving them with a chest full of sand. Critics agree that, on the basis of their Jewish identity, the two are associated with avarice and depicted as lacking manly virtues and honour. While some have characterised the passage as antisemitic, others have found that such a reading is anachronistic or lacking in historical context (and have even argued that the hero of Spain’s most celebrated epic later repaid the moneylenders). This chapter first revisits this question in light of more recent approaches to anti-Judaism and the origins of racial categories by David Nirenberg and Geraldine Heng. It then argues that verses in the episode, recorded in the one surviving manuscript, evoke specific biblical language from the Old and New Testaments in a way that links usury and sodomy, in keeping with an anti-Judaic trope that can be found in medieval sermons, Bibles moralisées and other visual imagery from the period.

in Bestsellers and masterpieces
Karla Mallette

This chapter tracks the fate of a particular category of literature that was popular then and is not now: wisdom literature. Works such as Barlaam and Josaphat, Kalilah and Dimnah, the Book of Secundus and the Seven Sages of Rome were widely read in the pre-modern world in both Arabic and a variety of western European languages. Then gradually, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, they vanished. Modern scholars have generally assumed that readers’ tastes changed. These works are all categorised as ‘wisdom literature’, and modern readers seek entertainment, not wisdom, in their leisure reading. But this account is incomplete, in part because each of these works has a distinct ethical footprint. Barlaam and Josaphat talks about religion and society. Kalilah and Dimnah focuses on the wiles of ministers or those who serve men in power. The Book of Secundus is an analytical wordlist of key terms used to describe the natural world, religion and society. And the Seven Sages of Rome is a tangled knot of sexual mores, investigating the games played by men and women, the tension between older and younger men, and the difficulty of establishing trust between men and women and between the young and the old. This chapter asks what ‘wisdom’ looks like in pre-modern literature, and why modern audiences have stopped reading these works.

in Bestsellers and masterpieces