19.09.24 Rubin, Learning in a Crusader City

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Scott G. Bruce

The Medieval Review 19.09.24

Rubin, Jonathan. Learning in a Crusader City: Intellectual Activity and Intercultural Exchanges in Acre, 1191–1291. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press , 2018. pp. x, 224. ISBN: 978-1-316-94109-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Scott G. Bruce
Fordham University
sbruce3@fordham.edu

Learning in a Crusader City offers a new perspective on the study of the crusader kingdoms of Outremer by considering the intellectual pursuits of their Frankish inhabitants and their intercultural commerce with local Jewish, Muslim, and eastern Christian communities. Rubin argues that previous scholars have offered an overly pessimistic view of intellectual activity in the crusader kingdoms, to which this case study of thirteenth-century Acre provides a useful and necessary corrective. The foundation of the book is an impressive annotated appendix of forty-four texts associated with Acre during this period (176-195), nineteen of which were definitively composed in the city and another twelve almost certainly so. Representing a plethora of genres (including theology, law, history, and poetry) in three languages (Latin, French, and Hebrew) written by western and indigenous Franks, eastern Christians, and Jews, the "Acre corpus" is a testament to the vitality and tenacity of learned cultures in Acre in the decades before the fall of the city in 1291, but it cannot tell the story on its own. Accordingly, Rubin sifts the evidence of these texts for what they can reveal about intellectual industry in a crusader city. The result is a convincing portrait of Outremer in general and Acre specifically as important venues for cultural production in the thirteenth century.

The book comprises two parts. The first two chapters provide the context for intellectual activity in Acre with a survey of the various social groups who engaged in it, both Christian and Jewish (chapter 1), and the centers of study that fostered their work (chapter 2). Unsurprisingly, Rubin finds that among Acre's Christian population, resident clergymen and members of the mendicant orders were responsible for the lion's share of intellectual labor. Less well attested are the local nobility, who consumed works of history, French romances, and chansons, as well as burgesses, lawyers, scribes, physicians, and envoys, who have left a much fainter impression in the surviving evidence, but nonetheless participated in learned culture. Jewish immigrants from western Europe and Jerusalem also negotiated their diverse traditions in the thirteenth-century city, but there is little evidence for cultural exchange between them and the Christian population. Even so, both the Christian and Jewish communities were "constantly updated regarding new ideas developing in the West" (46), with the result that Acre was clearly not the cultural backwater that some scholars have supposed. Formal instruction of Christian intellectuals took place in the Dominican and Franciscan convents, where teaching was also aimed at Muslim converts. A unique Old French-Arabic glossary (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, MS Copte 43), in which the French has been expressed using Coptic letters, suggests that Arabic-speaking Copts also sought instruction from Franks in Acre (54). Jewish centers of instruction were likewise present in the city, but the evidence for them derives primarily from the works of individual scholars like Isaac of Acre and Nahmanides.

Rubin devotes the remaining chapters of the study to four separate fields of knowledge cultivated by the intellectuals of Acre: language and translation, law, the study of Islam, and theological debate with eastern Christians. The Frankish inhabitants of Acre comprised one of several linguistic communities in the city (chapter 3). Proximity to those proficient in eastern languages inspired several translation projects, including an Arabic-French pharmaceutical glossary written in Latin characters, the translation of a collection of Marian miracles from Latin or French into Arabic, and translations of portions of the Qur'an from Arabic into Latin (66-69). Acre also supported a cottage industry for the translation of Latin into Old French, which rivalled Latin as the language of the city's western elites. The most important of these translations was John of Antioch's Old French translation of two classical treatises on rhetoric: Cicero's De inventione and the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium. Turning to juridical practices (chapter 4), Rubin describes the creative tensions and conflicts between indigenous customary legal traditions, which older knight-lawyers transmitted orally to their younger protégés, and "new" learned western legal procedure produced in the universities of France and based on the Roman law corpus.Three case studies (98-112) that take into account both traditions illustrate the vibrancy and dynamism of juridical discourse in the city.

Despite the fact that the Frankish inhabitants of Acre lived in close proximity to Muslim communities, their representation of the tenets of Islam was inconsistent and not always as accurate as one might suppose (chapter 5). Benoit d'Alignan knew about the reverence of Muslims for Jesus and Mary, but the multi-authored Relatio tripartita misleadingly compared Mohammad's role in Islam with the pope's position in Christianity. As Rubin notes, "such works were shaped not only by what their authors knew, or what they were in a position to learn, but also by the genre in which they were operating, their aims in writing and their intended audiences" (119). While some westerners like William of Tripoli acquired a sufficient proficiency in Arabic to read the Qur'an, direct contact between Franks and local Muslims usually took place within the context of captivity. Intellectuals in Acre also scrutinized the theological stance of the eastern Christians of their city (chapter 6). After several decades of restricted engagement, western theologians became increasingly interested in the distinctions between European Catholics and eastern Christians, spurred at first by the foundation of the Dominican convent in the late 1220s. Two temporary residents of Acre, Benoit d'Alignan and Thomas Agni, take center stage in this chapter. As Rubin shows, both of these men interrogated the errors of eastern Christian groups to promote the supremacy of Catholicism.

Rubin's portrait of thirteenth-century Acre as a city buzzing with intellectual activity connecting different linguistic and religious groups is well organized and convincing. Given the very narrow focus on a single city, the reader is sometimes left wondering if the findings of this study are exceptional or if they represent the intellectual currents of other large cities in Outremer. Also, certain topics are taken for granted for readers new to these subjects. For example, Abbot Peter the Venerable's initiative to translate the Qur'an and other Islamic religious texts into Latin in the twelfth century comes up on page 122, but its aims and reception are never fully elucidated and Peter's name does not appear in the index of the book. Even so, Learning in a Crusader City offers a refreshing look at thirteenth-century Acre as a crossroads of languages and cultures where intellectuals worked and thrived. Scholars of many different disciplines, including interfaith contact, jurisprudence, and translation, will find much to ponder in this narrow, yet illuminating, case study.

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