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by S.J. Pearce, New York University

Yo vi, en reino de olores,
que presidía entre comunes flores
la deidad de la rosa,
y era su emperatriz por más hermosa.
Yo vi entre piedras finas
de la docta academia de sus minas
preferir el diamante,
y ser su emperador por más brillante.
~Pedro Calderón de la Barca,
La vida es sueño II.611-618


The description of the entrance to the “reino de los olores” of Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Córdoba de los omeyas is so vivid and so sensory that it sparked my imagination and turned my stomach as I read: “Y justo al pie de la muralla, bordeando la ribera del río, se prolongaba un paseo empedrado, el rasif, en el que había una hilera de cruces, porque era allí donde se exhibían públicamente los cuerpos de los ajusticiados: a los olores de Córdoba que nos ha transmitido la literatura hay que sumar el hedor de la carne humana corrompida”.

And then I translated: “At the foot of the wall the rasif, a paved promenade, stretched out alongside the bank of the river, unspooling a string of crosses; this is where the bodies of convicts were displayed publicly. Of all of the smells of Córdoba that literature has preserved for us, the one that requires real overcoming is the stench of corrupted human flesh”.

And then I paused: my current project is an English-language translation of Muñoz Molina’s fabulously writerly popular history of Umayyad Córdoba. It is a project I began because I wanted to use the book to teach writing in the disciplines; as it writes history it very subtly interrogates the relationship of that discipline to literary narrative. It makes the reader consider the role of the author in a way that I would like my students to begin to do. Whether translations are always for an audience or whether they serve some other end is a debate in translation theory both medieval and modern; but at least in this case, I have been working from the beginning with a real public in mind.

That public is currently bombarded with racist and fascist rhetoric that has very nearly entered the mainstream of political discourse since last year’s presidential campaign, becoming more and more acceptable and normalized in the public sphere. Among other rhetorical tactics, white supremacists have turned to the Middle Ages to shore up their assertions about the purity of their heritage, portraying the medieval period as one of racial separation in which a pure white race existed in northern Europe; they are using a neo-medievalist fiction in order to try to justify their assaults, verbal and physical, on contemporary Muslims and people of color.

This trend is what made me stop to consider the potential consequences of putting out text into the English-speaking world that shows the Umayyad leaders of Córdoba, Arab descendants of the first Islamic caliphate, crucifying convicts and antagonists. Would this become fodder for virulent Islamophobes who wish to portray Islam as antithetical to civic order and to the basic decency that keeps us from using crucifixion as punishment in our post-Enlightenment world? Would they ignore that this vignette took place in the 8th century? Would they overlook the fact that judicial punishment meted out by medieval Christians was just as violent, bloody, sensational, and smelly?

Umayyad Córdoba was an ethnically and religiously diverse place, one that saw Jews, Christians, and Muslims living alongside each other, sometimes producing extraordinary cultural works in collaboration and other times coexisting in real, serious, and even fatal conflict. The historiography of medieval Iberia is no longer the caricature that it once was of Claudio Sánchez Albornoz’s polemic with Américo Castro at mid-century. As scholars we no longer choose between a sort of eternal Castile just waiting to become the national Spain of today and an unbounded place that produced a kumbaya version of religious toleration. The fact of convivencia is exactly what the word implies: living together. As anyone who has ever had a roommate knows, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, whether it is scaled to an apartment or a whole peninsula. We are realistic about the cultural consequences of the convivencia of medieval Spain: engagement and ignorance, neighborliness and estrangement, admiration and disgust, borrowing and hoarding, praise and polemic, reading broadly and burning books, compassion and violence. We hope that our modern readers see each half of each pair in concert with the other, but we also know that they might choose the one or the other that best suits their own personal imagined past.

We’ve seen such concerns play out in the last few weeks: A researcher at Uppsala University put out a press release detailing the extraordinary conclusions of her research: that the fabric bands sewn at the hems of certain Viking burial garments were adorned with the Arabic word for God, “Allah”, and the personal name Ali. The implications were tremendous for current debates in which Scandinavians and other Europeans with interests in a racially pure white contemporary Europe draw upon their fantasy of a similarly pure Middle Ages. Very quickly, certain left-leaning medievalists and news outlets spread the news that there were Viking converts to Islam and that the modern right’s dream that they themselves were products of a racially pure and eternally Christian Europe was again laid to waste.

The only trouble with this narrative is that it’s based on a gross error in interpreting the medieval evidence. The research, unpublished, had not been peer reviewed, and the researcher had not seen fit to consult with Arabic epigraphers or Islamic art historians before drawing her conclusions. The bands do not read “Allah”, the script does not correspond to the period of time when the garments were woven, and, as we Hispanists know well from the cache of burial garments now displayed in the textile museum in Burgos, burial in a shroud with Arabic-language appeals to God and for good fortune does not a Muslim make; Rodrigo Ximénez de Rada was laid to rest in a dalmatic with Arabic benedictions after a lifetime of polemicizing against Islam and Muslims in a culturally Arabized Toledo while the corpse of Berenguela of Castile was laid out in an abbey upon a pillow reading “lā ilaha ilā Allāh”, there is no god but God.

As those art historians and epigraphers weighed in, they affirmed that we have very good textual and material evidence for contact between Vikings and Muslims in the Middle Ages. (And at least one war of words broke out over the merits of The 13th Warrior,the campy fin-de-siècle Antonio Banderas vehicle that is the film version of Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, his mashup of Beowulf and the tenth century account of the faqih Ahmad Ibn Fadlan’s diplomatic mission from the caliphal court at Baghdad to the Vikings. Insults were issued. Tears were shed. Resist the urge to argue with medievalists about medievalist movies; it is best for everyone. But I digress.) These scholars challenged the interpretation of these particular bands of fabric as evidence of that intercultural contact without challenging the reality of the contact itself.

Yet they were largely assailed by medievalists who work neither on Islam nor on the Vikings who nonetheless clung to the discredited initial proposed reading of the bands of fabric. Those medievalists claimed that the Islamicists and Arabists were fanning the flames of the alt-right fantasists who love the idea of a racially and religiously pure Viking heritage; they spuriously began to accuse those scholars of Islamophobia for offering a corrective to the historical record that could be misappropriated by the alt-right. In that instance their fervor for the historical Middle Ages in which there was contact between Vikings and Muslims overrode their necessary devotion to evidence. Their intentions are noble: they do not wish to give intellectual succor to racists. But their methodology is indefensible; to lie or to fudge, suppress, or misinterpret data to serve a political agenda — however righteous the cause — itself sustains the pseudo-academic methodology of selective reading that is employed by white supremacist fanatics of the Middle Ages.

The crux of the “Viking Allah” ugliness is the same as the crux of my hesitation at presenting evidence for Umayyad crucifixions to an Anglophone reading public: far more than ever before, we scholars of the Middle Ages are relevant. The public is looking to us and at our research and our writing to support their ideologies or, in the best case, to try to make sense of the polarized world around them that they see growing increasingly “medieval”. Whether we are translating texts to make them available to new audiences or engaging in public presentation of our research — public humanities, too, is a kind of translation, making the esoteric and the dense newly legible — we have, for better or for worse, a real audience.

We can work to manage the reception, to be cognizant of ways in which the alt-right might misappropriate our work for their racist ends and to get out ahead of it in the public discourse; but we cannot manage the evidence itself, nor soften our interpretations of it.  We can anticipate the responses and contextualize our work far more than we might believe to be necessary to ensure that it does not take on an unwarranted, racist life of its own. We can protect our communities, our subjects, and our values by peering into the abyss of alt-right reception strategies without ourselves falling in. Doing so might even force us to be better, more thorough public humanists.

My training in literary criticism tells me to consider the author dead and to disregard his intentions. But when confronted with a living author those maxims, so simple for someone used to translating the words of people who have been dead for a thousand years, begin to crumble. It’s not a bad thing. Here, the living author and his intentions are a powerful solution to this problem of presenting a complex Middle Ages to a public that has its own preferences and intentions. Before I set to work he gave me a very serious charge: “Do not take liberties with my text”. Whether our text is a popular history of Umayyad Córdoba, warts and all, or a band of medieval fabric that doesn’t really say “Allah”, we do best not to take liberties with it when we translate it for the wider world.

Works Cited

Belam, Martin. “University claims Viking burial clothes woven with ‘Allah’ discovered in Sweden”. The Guardian News and Media Limited, 13 Oct. 2017. Web. 5 Nov. 2017.

Calderón de la Barca, Pedro. La vida es sueño. Cervantes Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes. Web. 5 Nov. 2017.

Crichton, Michael. Eaters of the Dead. New York: Harper, 2016. Print.

Fadlān, Ahmad Ibn. Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North. Trans. Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone. New York: Penguin, 2012. Print.

Ferguson, David. “White supremacists fly into white-hot rage at news some Vikings may have been Muslim”. Raw N.p., 13 Oct. 2017. Web. 5 Nov. 2017.

Livingstone, Josephine. “Racism, Medievalism, and the White Supremacists of Charlottesville”. New New Republic, 15 Aug. 2017. Web. 5 Nov. 2017.

Mulder, Stephannie. “The Rise and Fall of the Viking ‘Allah’ Textile”. Hyperallergic Media, Inc., 27 Oct. 2017. Web. 5 Nov. 2017.

Muñoz Molina, Antonio. Córdoba de los omeyas. Barcelona: Booket, 2016. Print.

Museo de Telas MedievalesMonasterio de Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas, Burgos.

Samuel, Sigal. “The Strangely Revealing Debate Over Viking Couture”. The The Atlantic Monthly Group, 17 Oct. 2017. Web. 5 Nov. 2017.

The 13th Warrior. Dir. John McTiernan. Touchstone Pictures, 1999. Film.

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