The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage

The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage

The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage

The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage


Arabic culture was a central and shaping phenomenon in medieval Europe, yet its influence on medieval literature has been ignored or marginalized for the last two centuries. In this ground-breaking book, now returned to print with a new afterword by the author, Maréa Rosa Menocal argues that major modifications of the medieval canon and its literary history are necessary.

Menocal reviews the Arabic cultural presence in a variety of key settings, including the courts of William of Aquitaine and Frederick II, the universities in London, Paris, and Bologna, and Cluny under Peter the Venerable, and she examines how our perception of specific texts including the courtly love lyric and the works of Dante and Boccaccio would be altered by an acknowledgment of the Arabic cultural component.


Les émologies arabes assignées par M. Ribera aux mots troubadour … ne
convaincront certainement personne. (Alfred Jeanroy, La poésie lyrique des
, 1934)

Accident and coincidence play as prominent a role in directing and shaping an individual’s work as do perspicacity and good sense, perhaps a larger one. in the case of my own interest in how western scholarship has structured its view of the medieval past, both accident and an aging Lady Philology played critical roles. the story bears telling because it is preliminary to the discussion that follows, and as a narrative of detection and discovery, I believe it to be typical of the often-blindfolded search for parts of the literary ancestry of medieval Europe that many others have undertaken.

I began to study classical Arabic when well along in my graduate study in Romance philology, largely as a lark. I was fortunate enough to find the justification and encouragement for the venture from a professor of medieval Spanish who, as a former student of Américo Castro, was more prone to see the potential value of such an enterprise than most. But what I had assumed to be a somewhat pedantic fling became considerably more engaging, because the verb ṭaraba—meaning “to sing,” among other things—happened to be on the vocabulary list of the firstyear Arabic course I was taking. Moreover, one day the Arabist who was teaching the course mentioned matter-of-factly that this taraba was the root of the European word troubadour.

I was surprised both by the facility of the pronouncement and by its apparent status of established fact in the world of oriental studies, since in Romance philology nothing could be more remote than such certainty about the origins of the word troubadour. I knew even then that among Romance scholars it was a cause célèbre, its origins unknown and disputed, a textbook etymological riddle still assigned in Romance philol-

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