14.09.08, George-Tvrtković, A Christian Pilgrim in Medieval Iraq

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Christopher MacEvitt

The Medieval Review 14.09.08

George-Tvrtković, Rita. A Christian Pilgrim in Medieval Iraq: Riccoldo da Montecroce's Encounter with Islam. Medieval Voyaging 1. Turnhout: Brepols, 2012. Pp. xvii, 248. ISBN: 978-2-503-53237-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Christopher MacEvitt
Dartmouth College

What was Riccoldo da Montecroce thinking when he placed a Qur'an on an altar in front of icons of the Virgin Mary and Jesus insisting, "Read! Read, what Machomet has to say!...Read, and give Machomet power against the Christians, as you wish" (163). Riccoldo's often contradictory perspectives on Islam and Muslims are the subject of Rita George-Tvrtković's monograph. Relatively little attention has been paid to the Dominican missionary, who spent several years in Baghdad at the end of the thirteenth century. His most influential work was the polemic against Islam, the Contra legem Sarracenorum which influenced later writers such as Nicholas of Cusa. But George-Tvrtković focuses on two of Riccoldo's other works--the Liber peregrinationis, an account of his journey to Baghdad, and the Epistolae ad ecclesiam triumphantem, a series of five letters addressed to God, the Virgin Mary, the celestial court, and the martyrs. Both works reveal a figure who admired aspects of Islam and Muslim religious practice, but who struggled to understand why Muslims were triumphant over Christians politically and militarily, particularly in the wake of the fall of Acre in 1291.

The six chapters of the book are thematic. The first gives a brief introduction to Riccoldo; the second chapter places all three works within the context of their particular genres. The third chapter considers Riccoldo's often laudatory attitude towards Muslim acts of piety. The fourth chapter tackles his more polemical, yet still appreciative, discussion of the Qu'ran, and the fifth chapter examines Riccoldo's impassioned querying of the celestial court concerning God's providential plan for the world, and whether the Muslim version of history is in fact the correct one. The final chapter brings together the previous three chapters to discuss Riccoldo's "theology of Islam."

Several aspects of George-Tvrtković's book make it a useful resource. It offers a clear and concise introduction to Riccoldo, engaging and accessible to students. Although George-Tvrtković intended to focus on the ambivalent and curious Liber peregrinationis and Epistolae, she reads them with frequent reference to the far more doctrinaire Contra legem. Doing so is certainly instructive. Riccoldo clearly found Islam and Muslims fascinating in the Liber peregrinationis and the letters; he admired their devotion to prayer, charity, and reverence for the name of God, which he termed opera perfectionis. In his letter to the Virgin Mary, he prayed that Christians might receive this gift, suggesting that he saw Muslims as more pious than Christians in many ways. For the Saracens, he prayed that they might receive "the law and the understanding of it" (65-66). He also delighted in the Arabic language, and as George-Tvrtković points out, repeatedly boasted of his ability to read the Qur'an in the original language, praising it for lyricality.

Even more startlingly, Riccoldo seemed to ponder whether Islam might in fact be the true religion. Riccoldo's passionate questioning of God and the whole of the heavenly court in the Epistolae was a reaction to the fall of Acre in 1291; the Dominican could not understand how it could be that Muslims were so victorious while Christians perished in droves. These letters are a challenge to interpret: how are we to understand Riccoldo placing the Qur'an on the altar and accusing the Virgin Mary and Jesus of preferring Saracens? Or asking the apostles and patriarchs, "why did you become Saracens and imitators of Mahomet (98)?" Is he being sarcastic? Or is it as George-Tvrtković suggests: "Riccoldo does seem to consider the possibility that the Islamic view of history is correct, if only for a short while" (97). Riccoldo thus tested revealed truth against the result of the battlefields of his own day. His conclusion seemed to be that the Muslim version of providential history explained the outcomes far better than the Christian version. To what extent did Riccoldo fully understand Islamic providential history, however? George-Tvrtković presents it largely as "Islam is victorious," but it is of course more complicated than that. To what extent was Riccoldo aware of Islamic providential history, and to what extent was his understanding simply a transposition of Christian providential history?

George-Tvrtković's presentation of the chronological development of Riccoldo's attitudes towards Islam raises some questions that are never fully answered. The repeated contrasts of the missionary's appreciative or ambivalent comments on Islam in the Liber peregrinationis and in the letters with the harsh and polemical claims of the Contra legem Sarracenorum is generally explained by positing an evolution of Riccoldo's views over time. According to the conventional chronology which George-Tvrtković follows, the letters expressed his doubts immediately after the fall of Acre in 1291 and were written in Baghdad, the Liber peregrinationis preserved his lived experiences traveling in the Middle East and was likely based on notes taken in the East and brought together upon his return to Florence around 3101, while the Contra legem was probably written after his return and represents some sort of resolution of the problem that Muslim piety and Muslim military success posed for Riccoldo. This is on first read a satisfying interpretation. However, it rests on shaky foundations. As George-Tvrtković points out, we have little evidence for this chronology or any other. Yet George-Tvrtković still uses it as a basis for her analysis--not an unreasonable move. We must wonder, nevertheless: how much does this chronology shape the way we read the texts? What other conclusions might be reached if this chronology was abandoned?

The texts differ from each other not only in when and where they were written, but also in genre. While George-Tvrtković devoted an entire chapter to contextualizing the texts in terms of genre, there is little discussion in her later chapters of how difference in genre and audience may have shaped the presentation of Islam in each text. This is particularly clear in the case of the letters. Unlike the Contra legem, of which dozens of manuscripts still exist, the Epistolae survive in only one manuscript; it is not clear whether Riccoldo ever intended them to circulate. George-Tvrtković generally interpreted them as "private" documents, revealing Riccoldo's deep anxieties and intended for an audience of one. She also suggests the possibility that these arguments are a form of aporia, a rhetorical device that that uses "feigned doubt" to resolve a question. Yet this possibility is offered only briefly; she does not explore how Riccoldo's work might compare to other contemporary examples in subject matter and use of aporia. Nor does she explore the full implications that Riccoldo might have crafted them for a larger audience. Who might that be? For what purpose? How does our perspective change if we see them not as private expressions of personal despair but as a crafted rhetorical strategy to some larger goal?

George-Tvrtković is also interested in placing Riccoldo in the context of "Christian theology of religions," both medieval and modern, but with a particular focus on the latter. Labeling Riccoldo's time in Baghdad as an "interreligious experience," George-Tvrtković points out that he was unusual in his use of his own personal experience as evidence to frame his understanding of Islam; most other medieval students of Islam relied on conventional textual portrayals to shape their perspective. Furthermore, she suggests that Riccoldo's use of experience shares much more in common with modern theologians' use of it in interreligious dialogue; in contrast, contemporary medieval authors (George-Tvrtković cites figures such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas), deployed experientia to describe knowledge gained through divine revelation rather than through personal experience in the mundane world. This aspect of her argument will make the book useful in theological courses that span the medieval and the modern. As a medievalist, I was eager to hear more about the context in which Riccoldo had these experiences--late thirteenth-century Baghdad. What was the Islamic world that Riccoldo encountered? How did the specific context of Baghdad shape Riccoldo's experience and understanding of Islam? George-Tvrtković gives us only a few tantalizing glimpses, suggesting for example, that Riccoldo saw the city as a Muslim equivalent of Paris, a place of learning and study with magistri and clerical students. Likewise, if some of the works were composed in Florence, how might Riccoldo have been responding to events there, both within the Dominican Order and the city at large?

The monograph gives an excellent introduction to a figure that should be much better known. In addition, the volume provides the welcome bonus of translations of both the Liber peregrinationis and the Epistolae, which have never before been translated fully into English. This will broaden the appeal of the book considerably; both are fascinating texts that could be assigned in any undergraduate or graduate class.

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Christopher MacEvitt

Dartmouth College