15.11.20, Bas, ed., Petri Marsilii Opera Omnia: Liber Gestorum, Epistola ad Abdalla

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Damian Smith

The Medieval Review 15.11.20

Bas, Antoni Biosca, ed. Petri Marsilii Opera Omnia: Liber Gestorum, Epistola ad Abdalla. Corpus Christianorum: Continuatio Mediaevalis, 273. Turnhout: Brepols, 2015. pp. xliv, 481. ISBN: 978-2-503-55218-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Damian Smith
Saint Louis University
dsmith69@slu.edu

The Liber Gestorum was presented to James II of Aragon (1295-1327) by the Dominican Pere Marsili in June 1314, having been completed in the previous year. The king was enthusiastic about this Latin translation of the Catalan work now itself usually called the Llibre dels Fets, an account of many of the major events in the life of James I of Aragon (1213-76), the primary author of that work in the opinion of most historians. The precise purpose of the Latin translation, however, is slightly unclear. Pere Marsili, in his prologue, states his frustration that the archbishop of Toledo, Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, in his highly influential De Rebus Hispanie, had paid scant attention to James I's extraordinary achievements and therefore he had set out to right this wrong. It was probably hoped that a Latin version of James's deeds would increase the reputation of the king and his dynasty, especially in the eyes of the papacy, at a time when Saint Louis had come to dwarf all other kings. The work was also to be used by the Dominicans in their preaching, particularly on the anniversary of the conquest of Majorca.

The Liber Gestorum is of note for those who take a keen interest in the preservation of the Latin language (as did James II himself) and especially so for those who study the transference of vernacular texts into Latin, a practice which was of course far from uncommon. Marsili is also helpful for those trying to understand the Catalan version of James's text because his translation is from the original (which is now lost to us) and to some extent informs some later Catalan versions of the text. It was also used significantly by later chroniclers, such as Zurita and Francisco Diago. For it is not by any means a simple translation of the Catalan. Rather Marsili makes substantial additions where he thinks them appropriate and useful, particularly concerning the history of the Church and the personalities of the Dominican order, in matters of geography (especially concerning the island of Majorca), and in the words and actions of the king and other characters, sometimes in an attempt to increase the dramatic effect but also often to portray James in particular far more directly as the miles Christi than he does himself. Given the number of alterations and additions in Marsili's text, it has to be consulted not solely to understand James's work but as an important source in itself.

There are nevertheless plenty of good reasons to criticize the learned friar's efforts (besides the fact that he was the first of many to divide up the original into artificial parts). Most obviously, not only do his additions sometimes take us away from James I's intentions, but poor Marsili also had an unhappy knack for spoiling a good story. To give an example, when the young king and his bride, Eleanor of Castile, the daughter of Alfonso VIII of Castile (1158-1214), were essentially being held under house arrest at Zaragoza by the nobles during the struggles of the minority, James devises an escape plan which will culminate in him lowering the queen on a board with ropes through a trapdoor to Don Artal de Alagón who would be waiting below (Llibre dels Fets, c. 23). When James finishes enthusiastically expounding his plan, the daughter of Alfonso VIII of Castile pours water on the scheme, curtly and magnificently responding "You must know that not for anything in the world would I be lowered from here with a rope and a board." Yet Marsili here gives the queen a longer speech (Liber I, 14, 118-26, p. 35) in which she explains the actual circumstances in which she would be willing to be lowered on a board through a trapdoor (especially in the event of marauding Saracens). The delightful haughtiness of the Castilian queen is unfortunately lost. The fact is that James, as well as being there, was a masterly storyteller, and his work was a live show, performed before his court and with a scribe setting it all down. Marsili sometimes seems terribly dry by comparison.

Dull as Marsili may be of soul, he is nevertheless still a valuable source in his own right and should be consulted by those interested in James I's reign and the subsequent period. This, moreover, is a very fine edition of the text, based mainly on Barcelona, Biblioteca Universitaria, MS. 64, but with careful consultation of the later manuscripts. It thus very substantially improves upon the previous 1984 edition of Martínez San Pedro. It is accompanied by Marsili's other extant work, the Epistola ad Abdalla, a brief but very interesting text, preserved in eleven manuscripts, all proceeding from Italian libraries, probably having been taken to Italy by the Majorcan Dominican Nicolau Rossell on being named cardinal in 1356. The letter is addressed by Marsili to Abdallah, formerly the Majorcan Franciscan, Andreu, whom he did not know personally, but whose conversion to Islam was notorious. It is an impassioned, rhetorically skillful plea for Abdallah's return to the Christian faith, accusing him of the worst of all sins but allowing him still to sacrifice himself for Christ. Such defections were rare but not unknown, and the letter certainly deserves further study both in terms of Christian-Muslim relations and the rivalries between the Dominicans and Franciscans.

Professor Biosca Bas is to be congratulated for having produced excellent editions of these important texts and for gaining Pere Marsili a merited place in the prestigious Corpus Christianorum series.

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