Though Ferdowsi's sources have disappeared, there has been a general consensus that his major source was a written composite translation from Pahlavi texts commissioned by Abu Mansur Abd al-Razzaq, who was governor of Tus during the first twenty years of the poet's life.(1) The so-called "older preface to the Shahnameh" has been identified as the preface to this translation (and as the only portion of the work to have survived); this is taken as confirmatory evidence of the existence of the translation, of its availability as a source for Ferdowsi, and of Ferdowsi's dependence on it when he was writing the Shahnameh.(2) In this paper I wish to voice doubts as to the probable truth of this generally held belief. I emphasize at the outset that I do not propose that the story be wholly rejected, and certainly I do not have another text to produce as the poet's major source, but I wish to indicate certain problems, parallels, and discrepancies that make the story seem somewhat dubious, at least in the form in which it is generally assumed to be true.
Here is an edifying tale. There was once a nation that prided itself on its traditions of heroism and independence. This nation was overrun by a foreign power; its rulers were changed and foreign manners and customs assumed the privileged position once enjoyed by the native culture. The local language survived but so profound were the social and cultural transformations that had taken place that it was many years before literature was once again written in that language. The language itself, despite its survival, had changed so much that the earlier texts were now indecipherable to the layman. Fortunately a lover of his country's past, as it had existed before the foreigners' conquest, heard of a history that had recently been put together and that was drawn from authoritative sources in the ancient language. A friend contrived to enable him to have access to a copy of this work, and so, moved by motives of "racial patriotism," he was able by drawing on its narratives to write the legendary pre-conquest heroic history of his native land, thus preserving it, as he himself boasted, for future generations of his countrymen.
Students of Middle English and medieval Latin will recognize this as the story of how Geoffrey of Monmouth's history of the kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae, c. A.D. 1150) came to be written. They will recognize the narrative about the "friend" (one "Walter of Oxford") who provided the "authoritative" chronicle (since lost), which the author drew on, as appearing near the beginning of Geoffrey's text. Students of medieval Persian will recognize it as the story of how Ferdowsi's history of the kings of Iran (the Shahnameh, c. A.D. 1000) came to be written. And they too will recognize the narrative about the "friend" who provided the "authoritative" chronicle (since lost), which the author drew on, as appearing near the beginning of Ferdowsi's text.
The coincidence seems too good to be true, and perhaps as factual narrative it is. Certainly few if any students of medieval Latin or Middle English now accept that Geoffrey of Monmouth was telling the unvarnished truth. A few quotations from the standard work on the subject, by J. S. P. Tatlock,(3) will suffice to indicate the general view: "Needless to say, no experienced medievalist believes a word of his [Geoffrey's] opening statement to this effect" (p. 422). "The statement that the book was very ancient . . . was inserted merely to invite belief . . . and also respect for the antiquity of the tradition" (p. 423). "[It is] hardly necessary to say how often in all times documents and whole books have claimed a false author, history, age or original language in order to secure authority or credit." Tatlock refers to Geoffrey's waving his very ancient book ("vetustissimum librum") in our faces as an example of the relatively common medieval practice by which an author ascribed his "original to a unique and unavailable copy in a little known language." His remarks on Geoffrey's motives, both for writing the history in the first place and for referring to the "vetustissimum librum" as his primary source, seem singularly pertinent to Ferdowsi's presumed situation and intentions in writing the Shahnameh. Geoffrey of Monmouth was in a situation roughly parallel to Ferdowsi's. A native of twelfth-century Wales, a province distant from the capital and one which prided itself on the preservation of pre-conquest (pre-Norman French that is, and even pre-Anglo-Saxon) traditions, he set about writing the pre-conquest history of his people, emphasizing their martial, heroic and chivalric legends (Geoffrey's History is one of the chief sources for the Arthurian legends). As Tatlock remarks, "Geoffrey's motive was racial patriotism . . .; those who profited most from Geoffrey's work were the Britons; and one of his motives may well have been to heighten respect for them among his Norman superiors. There is no better measure of a people's civilization, as Gaston Paris once said, than its interest in its own history" (pp. 427-28). Tatlock concludes: "This unquestionable motive for writing confirms one's disbelief in the existence of the 'very ancient British book' alleged by Geoffrey" (p. 432). One possibility(4) is that Geoffrey's source was in fact a contemporary work in the lingua franca of literate medieval Europe, Latin. That he does not acknowledge this is due to the fact that the text in question was neither old nor in the ancient language of the people who were his work's subject; that is, in the eyes of his intended audience, it lacked the two essential criteria that would confer authenticity upon a chronicler's source.
The need to indicate authority (preferably ancient authority) for one's statements was a general medieval concern, shared by Christian and Muslim authors alike. In the Islamic world the development of the science of evaluating hadith according to their chains of transmission is compelling evidence of the importance of the concept. For a work of romantic historical fiction such authority could be something as vague as Gorgani's remarks at the opening of Vis o Ramin, when he refers to the source as gerd avordeh-ye shesh mard-e danast ('gathered together by six knowledgeable men');(5) which he then dilutes to the even vaguer neveshteh yaftam andar samarha ('I found a written work among stories').(6) Or it could be as cavalierly invented as Chaucer's "myn auctor Lollius" invoked at the opening of his Troilus and Criseyde (bk. 1, 1. 394). Chaucer's Lollius is an especially interesting case in that we know what the poet's actual source was - Boccaccio's Filostrato - but we see that Chaucer prefers to invent an ancient source, by a (deliberate?) misreading of a passage in Horace,(7) rather than to acknowledge his actual contemporary one, clearly because the ancient source, in an ancient language, is thought to confer the greater authority. For a medieval writer looking for a source the only good author was a dead author.(8)
For works that claimed to impart an authentic historical record, and that dealt with public and political rather than private and romantic events, more circumstantial and convincing authority was required. The fact that a work was in verse did not make any less powerful the necessity for referring to credible sources. To take a parallel case from Middle English, one even closer to the Shahnameh in its concerns and form than Geoffrey of Monmouth's history, Layamon's Brut opens with a comprehensive statement as to his …