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02.03.01, Hyatte, The Prophet of Islam in Old French

02.03.01, Hyatte, The Prophet of Islam in Old French

A learned and respectable Classics professor once told me nonchalantly but earnestly that "Dante was far too important to be considered a medieval writer." I still recall this fatuous remark because it exemplifies the tendency of scholars to forget that the structure and sense they graft onto history is their own and not history's, and that one of the greatest mistakes is to believe that categories can tell us much about the things they categorize.

My dear blinkered professor's need to think of Dante as perforce a "Renaissance writer" is not unlike the desire to see him as an essentially "Western writer", a parochial truism that is myopically adverse to iconoclast theories of history such as the claim by the eminent Hispano-Arabist Miguel Asin Palacios earlier this century that Dante took his inspiration for the Divine Comedy in part from an Arabic Muslim source. That source, known as the Mi'raj or book of Muhammad's Ladder, details the Prophet's overnight journey from Mecca to Jerusalem (known as the isra'), in which he traverses the heights and depths of heaven and hell on a mythical winged horse. A general belief in the integral and inviolate "Westernness" of Europe thus led one scholar, in the introduction to a recent modern translation of the text, to anticipate the reader's surprise and ingenuously ask why there should have been any interest at all on the part of medieval Western readers in an Islamic religious treatise. The reality of such medieval Christian interest in, or at least knowledge of, the life of Muhammad and the beliefs of Islam belies the still ubiquitous myth that Western civilization developed from a purely Classical seed, always ignorant of and in opposition to the specter of the East. The importance of highlighting and disseminating a more complicated history of the development of the West justifies Reginald Hyatte's choice to translate into English the Old French prose version of Muhammad's Ladder known as Le Livre de l'eschiele Mahomet together with the Romans de Mahon, an Old French poem about the Prophet's life, both produced at nearly the same moment of the thirteenth century. Even before considering the work itself, we should recognize the paramount importance and timeliness of the project in an academic world where the role of Islam in the formation of Europe is at times egregiously misunderstood and still inadequately explored.

Hyatte's introduction, which explains the context and history of each text, follows a brief justification of their inclusion in the same volume. Such a justification is needed because of the abundant and striking differences between the texts, but Hyatte implies that these differences are not so many as to preclude their logical pairing in English translation. Each Old French text derives from a Latin source: the Romans de Mahon is Alexandre du Pont's French romance based loosely on the twelfth-century Otia de Machomete by Gautier de Compiegne, and the Livre de l'eschiele Mahomet derives from a series of translations into Latin and French of a Castilian translation of an Arabic original. Hyatte admits at the very beginning that the two texts differ greatly in character, sources, and genre, noting that The Romance of Muhammad is based on anti-Islamic Christian polemic and legend, whereas The Book of Muhammad's Ladder "reproduces Muslim traditions free of Christian interpretation". (1) Hyatte does not claim that the two texts had any influence on one another nor even that they were read by the same audience. He does, however, establish grounds for their comparison and joint presentation by ascribing to each "the same end with respect to French Christian audiences-- discrediting Islam's foundations". (1) While such a polemical view is clearer in the Romance of Muhammad, there is no explicit criticism of Islam in the text of Muhammad's Ladder itself. Such a direct mission statement comes only in the introduction to the latter text written by one of the medieval translators, who states that he is translating the text from the Spanish translation to better arm Christian critics in their attack on Islam. (97) The Spanish translation from Arabic, done by a Jewish physician of King Alfonso X the Wise (r. 1252-1284) named Abraham, is now lost, which leaves the question of Alfonso's motive in having it translated unanswered and open to further speculation.

Hyatte explains the complicated situation surrounding the transmission of Muhammad's Ladder, a transmission he rightly calls "exceptional" (22), in a clear, albeit brief, section of the introduction. The French and Latin translations have been traditionally understood as the work of the same person, Bonaventura da Siena, who was thought to have based his texts on the Castilian translation from Arabic by order of King Alfonso X. As Hyatte aptly explains, scholars have challenged the order of this dissemination with varying theories about the sources of the French text, and many have dismissed the spurious belief, despite the explicit statement in the original introduction, that Alfonso X commissioned it along with the Latin translation (Alfonso is, after all, not thought to have commissioned any other French translations). [1] Hyatte thus rightly rejects the attribution of the French text of Muhammad's Ladder to Bonaventura da Siena but still maintains that the intention of the text was to "counter and discredit Muslim authority primarily on the Christian home front" (22) in the same way that other texts such as the Qur'an and other works on Muhammad, translated from Arabic to Latin in Toledo in the twelfth century under Peter the Venerable (c.1092-1156), sought to provide information to Christians to better arm themselves against Islam.

Hyatte makes the same claim in his introduction about the purpose of the Romance of Muhammad, a poem he calls the "unique example of an Old French romance on the subject of Muhammad's life". (5) Firstly, Hyatte facilitates the reading of the translations by dividing the poem into a series of major events and explaining each in comparison with the Otia (13-17). He also traces the tradition of polemical Latin and French texts treating Muhammad and Islam that gave fruitful context to Du Pont's text, documenting the poem's extensive dependence on the Otia as well as its rootedness within the tradition of polemical texts produced under Peter the Venerable and earlier romance epics as far back as the Chanson de Roland.. [2] Through a fascinating and deft comparison of Gautier's text with Latin texts of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, specifically focusing on the oft- repeated scene of a Christian hermit who conspires with the Prophet, Hyatte highlights Gautier's innovations upon previous views of the Muslim prophet (innovations adopted by Du Pont) and effectively traces "the Otia's deviation from Christian consensus of its time". (11) This is perhaps the strongest and most memorable point Hyatte makes, and it constitutes a real contribution to the ongoing discussion of the tradition of Latin texts dealing with the Prophet. His authoritative knowledge of Old French literature and of the romance traditions surrounding this text stand out most clearly in his introduction and notes to Du Pont's poem, and the essential bibliography reflects that critical familiarity as well.

Hyatte adroitly translates the two texts, remaining faithful to the original French but never sacrificing sense to excessive literalness. His footnotes in the Romance of Muhammad consistently address obscure passages and include the French text in comparison with the original Latin Otia when necessary, as well as references to other Latin and French works, and to the Bible. Likewise, his notes to Muhammad's Ladder quote some more-obscure passages in the original French and often compare them to the Latin version of the text. Hyatte frequently includes relevant commentary by important previous editors of the texts such as Cerulli and Wunderli to help explain confusing names or passages. Making up the bulk of the book, his artful translations constitute its real merit and, despite any limitations of the critical or historical apparatus, stand as a laudable testament to Hyatte's assiduous labor in producing this volume.

Equally important to the presentation of the texts and well done throughout is Hyatte's documentation of the Qur'anic citations and other Islamic sources within the two texts. He documents all explicit quotations from the Qur'an and almost always notes allusions to and use of Qur'anic language. He also includes the proper transliterations of the Arabic phrases to explain the hobson-jobson transliterations of the medieval translators of Muhammad's Ladder, noting that most transliterations and footnotes come from Cerulli's notes in his 1949 facing-page edition of the French and Latin texts. (35) Part and parcel of his careful representation of the details of the Qur'anic background of the text is Hyatte's judicious and accurate presentation of Islam and its traditions. Especially fitting and helpful are his references to Ibn Ishaq, an eighth century compiler of hadith traditions and sirah, stories of the life of the Prophet (10 et passim). Nevertheless, Hyatte performs better in his discussion of French literary history than of the Arabic sources which surround the texts, and his edition would benefit from a more complete representation of Islamic tradition and the context of the source text in Arabic literary history.

Although Hyatte provides two reasons for undertaking the task of translating these texts together, viz. their temporal propinquity and his belief in their shared intention of aiding anti-Islamic arguments "on the home front", he justifies his project first of all by emphasizing that this is the first translation ever of these texts into English. Nevertheless, beyond these generic remarks about their similar aim, Hyatte draws very few connections, either in the introduction or in the notes, between the content of the two texts, leaving the connection between them difficult to appreciate. References such as those comparing the two texts' views on "milk and honey" (161 n. 69), for example, enrich the edition immensely and would have been welcomed in greater number. Also lacking was a fuller discussion of the history of the polemic surrounding Dante's possible link to this tradition. Hyatte mentions this points (25-26), but "rather than dealing further with [this] broad and vexed question" (26) he explores his own equally interesting ideas about the reception and intention of the text. This approach, although innovative, strikes me as questionable for the first publication of these texts in English, intended for a possibly uninitiated audience who presumably would choose to read the English because they are unable to work with the Italian and German apparatus of the French and Latin texts. Although extensive discussion of all the critical points surrounding the texts would be superfluous and cumbersome, a sufficiently complete introduction to all such key ideas should be a necessity for this class of critical translated editions.

One final point that should be addressed in more detail is Hyatte's claim that both texts share a similar polemical purpose. On the one hand, his explanation of the long polemical tradition behind Du Pont's text, as well as the binding of the Latin translation of Muhammad's Ladder with the clearly polemical Latin texts produced under Peter the Venerable (22), support this claim. On the other hand, it is difficult for Hyatte to defend the claim that these texts had the same polemical agenda based on his earlier assertion that Du Pont's text did not enjoy a large popular audience and so "remains far removed from the regional or even European concerns of his domestic audience" (17) and that "it seems unlikely that [Alfonso X and whoever comissioned the French translation] could have imagined that Muhammad's Ladder or its readers would play any part in converting Muslims". (23) Hyatte never resolves the apparent conflict between his well- supported argument that Du Pont sought to humanize Muhammad for his readers and his original argument that the romance, together with Muhammad's Ladder, sought mainly to discredit Islam's foundations. Likewise, Hyatte's reasons for claiming that the latter text was translated for polemical purposes are all based on speculation about the possible understanding of the potential translators and readers of the text, speculation that requires more-detailed support to be acceptable. The claim, for example, that the "typical" literal Muslim depiction of the afterlife would prove to Christians that Islam is "grossly materialistic" is oversimplified and largely unprovable. Moreover, Hyatte's theory that the role of the apocalyptic narrative genre in Muhammad's Ladder facilitated Christian reception and comprehension of the Muslim religious tradition (26-30), while fascinating and worthy of further discussion, requires more development and proof to be tenable. Also, his claim that translators of Muhammad's Ladder did not add commentary to the original--either because of their "presumption that Western Christian readers recognized [the apocalyptic images]" (29) or because the images themselves provided "extremely jarring indications of self- evident 'errors' [of Muslims]" (29)--ignores the problem created by a translation without a source text to verify such claims. Because those elements could potentially have been added or altered by the translators, an argument based on this evidence can never be confirmed. (Still, the fact that Christ is located in the lowest level of Heaven does provide some good preliminary support for Hyatte's hypothesis.) The reality that Muhammad's Ladder presents no explicit criticism of Islam and no statements favoring Christianity, however, make the task of categorically proving the text's polemical purpose supremely difficult. The one explicit mention of a polemical purpose--in the original introduction, ostensibly by Bonaventura da Siena--must be thrown out with the bath water if we choose to dismiss his own claims about his sources and patronage.

While the introduction and criticism of Du Pont's text is much richer than Hyatte's sometimes cursory treatment of Muhammad's Ladder, it seems fair to say that the critical apparatus Hyatte proffers with both translations are sufficient even if they are spare, and he recognizes his own succinctness and states explicitly that the introduction and notes are meant only to provide a "limited scope" (10) to readers. The overall quality of the translations as well as the presence of fascinating theses concerning Du Pont's motives in humanizing the image of Muhammad in the Romans (5-12) and Alfonso X's interest in cosmology as a possible motivation for his commissioning translations of Muhammad's Ladder (34) compensate for the possible limitations of certain details of the edition. The volume stands as an important first moment in the dissemination of these texts to the English-speaking world and a valuable contribution to the ongoing study of their content as well as their implications about the nuanced and porous relationship of medieval Europe to the cultural wealth of the Muslim world.


[1] As Hyatte explains, Jacques Monfrin argues in "Les sources arabes de la Divine comedie et la traduction francaise du livre de l'ascension de Mahomet," Bibliotheque de l'Ecole des Chartes 109 (1951): 277-290, Bonaventura da Siena did not translate the French text, despite the text's explicit claim that he did. Monfrin also maintains that the text's own claim that its source was the Castilian text, rather than the Latin translation based on that text, is likewise unfounded. Peter Wunderli proposes in "Le livre de l'eschiele Mahomet. Die franzosischen Fassung einer alfonsinischen Ubersetzung," Romanica Helvetica 77 (Bern: Francke, 1968) that a Provencal translator, possibly working under Alfonso X, produced the French translation. Joseph F. O'Callaghan's The Learned King. The Reign of Alfonso X of Castile. Middle Ages Series (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993) examines the wise king's many translation projects in detail and lists no translation into French among Alfonso's efforts (21).

[2] The projects of Peter the Venerable, most noteworthy among which is the twelfth-century Latin translation of the Qur'an, are outlined by James Kritzeck in Peter the Venerable and Islam, Princeton Oriental Studies 23 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964). Hyatte refers the reader to Alessandro D'Ancona's "La leggenda di Maometto in Occidente," Giornale storico della letteratura italiana 13 (1889): 199-281 and Alexandre Eckhardt's "Le cercueil flottant de Mahomet," Melanges de philologie romane et de litterature medievale offerts a Ernst Hoepffner, Publications de la Faculte des Lettres de l'Universite de Strasbourg 113 (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1949) for a full discussion of previous romance texts that depict Muhammad as a demonic idol or drunkard dismembered by swine.