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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.

Hepburn Sacha

This chapter examines the varied ways in which domestic workers in Lusaka and other southern African cities have pursued collective organising, from efforts to establish formal associations and trade unions to participation in informal relations of solidarity. In the Zambian case, despite the efforts of successive groups of domestic workers and labour activists from the 1930s onwards, formal organisations have failed to secure broad support amongst the labour force or achieve significant improvements in domestic workers’ rights. This resulted from the limited financial and organisational capacity of such organisations, the government’s dismissive attitude towards the sector, and the failure of workers’ organisations to tailor their interventions to reflect the breadth of domestic service practices. Formal worker organisations in Lusaka and across the region’s urban centres were dominated by adults engaged in wage labour, with no efforts to organise working children and limited engagement with kin-based domestic workers, most of whom were female and, often, young. The formal labour movement model was also unsuccessful because male and female domestic workers of all ages could pursue alternative solutions to their grievances at work, from individual strategies of resistance to informal collective organising.

in Home economics
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Hepburn Sacha

This chapter draws together the book’s arguments, summarising findings from the Lusakan case and outlining what these reveal about the nature of gender, work, and urban economies across southern Africa’s post-colonial cities. It argues that the Lusakan case demonstrates the centrality of domestic service to livelihood and housekeeping strategies across the region’s urban centres; highlights the importance of women and girl workers and kin-based labour to household and broader economies; and shows how traditional forms of regulating and organising labour do not match the complex realities of (domestic) labour relations in the region. The final part of the conclusion suggests new avenues for historical and interdisciplinary scholarship. The economic, social, and cultural importance of domestic service in Lusaka and across the region’s urban centres shows no signs of abating, given the continued precarity of employment and the failure of regional governments to extend public services, bolster employment opportunities, and combat gender inequality. It thus seems likely that waged and kin-based domestic service will continue to play a key role in individual and household survival strategies in future years. The chapter argues that future research and policymaking on work, gender, children, and development in the region must reckon with these realities, and should pay particular attention to the interplay of kin-based and wage labour; the role of child workers in the region’s economies and the gender dynamics of children’s employment; and the potential of informal strategies of worker organising.

in Home economics
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
Hepburn Sacha

This chapter explores how gender and age shaped domestic service practices in Lusaka, and how these dynamics shifted over time. It outlines how specific gendered and racialised models of domestic service developed under colonial rule in Lusaka and other southern African cities. In African households, domestic service practices were grounded in the gendered and gerontocratic hierarchies of kinship and marriage, and primarily involved women and girls’ labour. In the households of White settlers and colonial officials, by contrast, the majority of domestic workers were African men and boys. The male dominance of domestic service in White households declined over time in some colonial contexts but persisted in Northern Rhodesia. This dominance was eroded following Zambian independence because of growing demand for female domestic workers, particularly from Black employers, and growing supply of women and girls’ labour. The chapter reveals how these dual processes led to the feminisation of domestic service in Lusaka, and Zambia more broadly, a process which involved the reorganisation of work along gendered lines, with female workers coming to dominate indoor roles involving cleaning and childcare, and male workers moving into outdoor roles as gardeners and guards. The chapter relates the feminisation of domestic service in Lusaka to broader regional developments and shows that, across southern Africa, domestic service was unevenly but unmistakably transformed into a predominantly female occupation during the twentieth century.

in Home economics
Hepburn Sacha

This chapter explores the life histories of girl domestic workers, exploring how they found their first jobs, their perspectives on their working conditions and pay, their experiences of spatial and social mobility, and their relationships with employers and kin. It reveals how girls used employment in domestic service in Lusaka to support themselves and their dependants in the city and the countryside, and how they made significant contributions to household and local economies in the process. Making comparisons with girls’ employment in other southern African cities, the chapter also makes a broader argument about the ways in which gender and age intersected with sexuality and kinship in the making of labour relations in the region. It also engages with contemporary discourses on children and employment in Africa. Specifically, it complicates the representation of girl domestic workers through a lens of victimhood by illustrating how girl domestic workers in Lusaka pursued their own goals and aspirations even in the face of significant personal and structural constraints.

in Home economics
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Domestic service and gender in urban southern Africa
Author: Hepburn Sacha

Home economics offers an innovative, comparative history of domestic service in southern Africa’s post-colonial cities. Focusing on Lusaka and drawing wider comparisons, it provides the first in-depth study of domestic service in Black households in the region. Drawing on rich oral histories and diverse documentary sources, it develops a new theoretical approach which, for the first time, brings wage and kin-based domestic labour and child and adult workers into a single frame of analysis. In so doing, it challenges the narrow focus of existing scholarship and policymaking and breaks new ground in the theorisation of work. The book traces how Black employers and workers adapted existing models of domestic service rooted in colonial labour relations and African kinship structures, revealing how waged domestic service was gradually undermined by increased reliance on extended family networks and the labour of young female kin. It demonstrates how women and girls pursued employment in and came to dominate both kin-based and waged domestic service. It also explores efforts to regulate and organise these largely informal and intimate forms of work, and the gendered and generational impacts of such interventions. This rich and timely study provides essential insights into the nature of gender, work, and urban economies across southern Africa. It reveals the strategies that children, women, and men have pursued to support themselves and their dependants in the face of economic decline, precarious employment, and stark inequalities, and shows how gender, age, class, and kinship have shaped work within and beyond the home.

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