Kurt Villads Jensen

title.none: Blanks and Frassetto, eds., Western Views of Islam in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Jensen)

identifier.other: baj9928.0007.010 00.07.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Kurt Villads Jensen, Odense University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Blanks, David, and Michael Frassetto eds. Western Views of Islam in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Perceptions of Other. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. Pp. 2, 235. $45.00. ISBN: 0-312-21891-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.07.10

Blanks, David, and Michael Frassetto eds. Western Views of Islam in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Perceptions of Other. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. Pp. 2, 235. $45.00. ISBN: 0-312-21891-5.

Reviewed by:

Kurt Villads Jensen
Odense University

This collection of eleven essays on Western Views of Islam is a very important contribution to scholarship because it presents new knowledge and new approaches. It is also a very uneven collection which includes both articles intending to cover the whole area of study in some twenty pages or less, and other articles concentrated upon following the exegesis of one single verse from the Old Testament over a limited time period.

Rather than listing up all articles individually, it might therefore be of more interest to present some general themes in the book. One such is diversity. It is pointed to in the splendid overview article by David R. Blanks from the American University in Cairo, "Western Views of Islam in the Premodern Period: A Brief History of Past Approaches". Former studies have been marred by the assumption of a European uniformity of thoughts and have attempted to locate and define THE Christian attitude in the Middle Ages. This is shown by a thorough and well written exposition of scholarly work from the twentieth century, in which it is shown how the individual background has influenced the scholar's attitude, often to a high degree. New material on, for example, the personal involvement of Norman Daniel in his contemporary political and religious discussions is presented here. Also changes in the general intellectual climate--from pacifism after WWI to the search for a new enemy after the end of the Cold War--is presented as a background for understanding the scholarly tradition, and it is then no wonder that the present book in a 'post modern' period should put so much weight on diversity instead of uniformity.

Blanks emphasizes with good arguments that different views of Islam existed, either polemical against each other, or because of simple ignorance of each others' existence, or because of the different circumstances in which they were formulated especially concerning more or less knowledge of actual, living Islam. An explicit aim of the whole collection is therefore to give examples of this diversity of attitudes. Jo Ann Hoeppner Moran Cruz writes about popular attitudes toward Islam in Medieval Europe, 'popular' being widely diffused attitudes mainly in lay literature such as Chansons. It differed from many of the more learned, theological attitudes in significant respects. An author as Wolfram von Eschenbach could, amidst his strong anti-Muslim sentiment, still express the belief that infidels would also be saved, and in the 1260s the Dominican master Humbert of Romans had to argue against the popular belief that Muslim victories were a sign that they had God on their side.

Most medieval authors however, lay and many learned, also described Muslims as idolators and polytheists venerating a trinity of Muhammad, Tergevan, and Apollon. From where did this blatant misconception of Muslim polytheism stem? Alauddin Samarrai suggests (in "Arabs and Latins in the Middle Ages: Enemies, Partners, and Scholars") that Apollon is a misunderstanding of Allah and that the difficult to explain Tergevan might be a corruption of Tariq, the famous Berber conqueror of Spain in 711. Another explanation suggested by Hoeppner Moran Cruz is that the accusation of polytheism reflects a distant memory of Muslim armies in Spain in the eight century composed of auxiliary troops with different creeds; Chanson de Roland's mentioning of Nubians, Slavs, Armenians, Moors, Pechenegs, Avars, Huns, and Hungarians is no invention but reflects the former, politically labile situation. A third explanation for ascribing to Muslims the adherence to polytheism is proposed by Michael Frassetto and John V. Tolan, namely the classical background. Frassetto, in "The Image of the Saracen as Heretic in the Sermons of Ademar of Chabannes", can refer to unpublished manuscripts of this important and well studied ecclesiastic from Limoges (died 1034) whose writings are the main source for the southern Peace of God movement in the eleventh century. He also, Frassetto shows, described Muslims as heretics and compared them to the Antique sects of Arians and Sabellians. Tolan suggests (in "Muslims as Pagan Idolaters in Chronicles of the First Crusade") that the first crusaders understood their own time as a direct continuation of the fight of the apostolic church against paganism. In this eschatological, typological understanding of history, "unobstructed by mere facts", they could find comfort in the conviction that they would--in the end--be victorious.

Another theme in this book is the change of attitude towards Islam over time. Did tolerance and better understanding become more prevalent or less? A starting point for this discussion is the double aspect of the twelfth century, which is mentioned by Nina Dulin-Mallory (in "'Seven trewe bataylis for Jesus Sake': The Long-Suffering Saracen Palomides"), the positive admiration originating in the border areas of Spain and the negative, crusader attitude. Both lived on in the chivalrous chansons and romans, the negative as a stereotype to describe the masses of enemies, while the positive became more and more elaborate over time. Palomides was with King Arthur at Camelot, deeply in love with Isolt, one of the four best knights in the world, but a tragic figure who persisted in being a Muslim until shortly before his death. Dulin-Mallory's picture conforms well to that of Gloria Allaire ("Noble Saracen or Muslim Enemy? The Changing Image of the Saracen in Late Medieval Italian Literature") who admits that most innovations in attitude do appear to have had older backgrounds, but still is certain that the depiction of Muslims in late Medieval Italian texts were less evil and more humanistic than earlier. Muslims were--also because of greater knowledge of how they actually lived--described more as individuals and "less seen through the lenses of nationalism and religion". The opposite conclusion is, interesting enough, reached by Donald J. Kagay (in "The Essential Enemy: The Image of the Muslim as Adversary and Vassal in the Law and Literature of the Medieval Crown of Aragon"). After a negative beginning with apocalyptic fear, and with convivencia being only a beautiful ideal with little impact upon actual Christian persecution of Muslims, it became worse in the later Middle Ages. In the fifteenth century, apocalyptism grew and also nationalism in an attempt to unify Spain and conquer the last Muslim stronghold, Granada. The attitude to Muslims became much harsher, and their actual status deteriorated.

Most of this balancing between negative and positive attitudes has formerly often been tied to a distinction between lay, positive and mostly erroneous attitude as opposed to a theological, negative but more correct description of Islam. Many of the articles here avoid this dichotomy, a very good example is Ernest N. Kaulbach's "Islam in the Glossa Ordinaria". He has tracked down changes in the glossing of Deut. 6.5 where in the early thirteenth century cor, mens, and anima is changed to spiritus, cor, anima, influenced by Aristotelian/Arabic philosophy. This has wide implications. Not only does it point to a theological acceptance of Arabic concepts but it also forms the basis for formulating that also those outside the Christian church can be saved, which Kaulbach finds in Franciscan theology in the 1220-1240s and also in Piers Plowman, an example of an elite concept gaining popular acceptance.

A third theme is the question whether Medieval attitudes are the background for modern anti-islamic ones. This is very often assumed, but Blanks argues against any direct connection, while some of the other contributions in this volume argue pro. The question is treated in more detail in the last two articles, by Nancy Bisaha ("'New Barbarian' or Worthy Adversary? Humanist Constructs of the Ottoman Turks in Fifteenth-Century Italy") and Daniel J. Vitkus ("Early Modern Orientalism: Representations of Islam in Sixteenth-and Seventeenth-Century Europe"). Bisaha takes as starting point the fall of Constantinople in 1453 which came as a shock to the humanists, also because of the massive burning of books with all the classical knowledge. It was compared to the fall of Rome in 410, and the Turks to the barbaric Goths and Vandals. It resulted in renewed crusading efforts, but also in a new construction (in the sense of Edward Said) of a superior West confronted by a less developed East. After 1500, this enabled the Lutheran Reformers to formulate a more secular basis for waging war against the Muslims independent of the pope. And this construction became one of the lasting impacts of the late Medieval attitudes to Islam. Vitkus stresses the point even more sharply: The Reformation period picture of Islam was a total misrepresentation continued from the Middle Ages, but it acquired new and lasting aspects by being closely attached to the religious struggle internally in Western Europe. To the reformers, Babylon became Rome, the pope the whore of the Apocalypse and in some mysterious way connected to the ubiquitous interest for sex and seraglio. The reformers imagined a Turkish-popish conspiracy, and the pope attempted to organise a crusade against infidels and Lutherans. The demonization of Islam and misunderstanding of Islamic society and religion are still prevalent in the dominant ideology of the West, Vitkus concludes.

Western Views of Islam attempts to cover a very large epoch and an immense area of study in relatively few pages, and almost all articles could be supplemented by more examples, and conclusions will be discussed and many of them might have to be refined and adjusted. The lasting value of the book is, however, that it contains a great number of new observations and inspirations for further studies, and that it explicitly and with success opts for a new and more methodologically reflected approach to Medieval attitudes.