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Medieval Bestsellers vs. Masterpieces:
CONFERENCE PAPER SUMMARIES
A View From Europe
Heather Blurton is Associate Professor of English and Faculty Chair of the Medieval Studies program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her forthcoming book, with Hannah Johnson, is titled: The Critics and the Prioress: Antisemitism, Criticism, and Chaucer's Prioress's Tale (University of Michigan Press, 2017).
A View From the Middle East
Dwight F. Reynolds is professor of Arabic Language and literature in the Department of Religious Studies, UC Santa Barbara. His books include Heroic Poets, Poetic Heroes: The Ethnography of Performance in an Arabic Oral Epic Tradition, Arab Folklore: A Handbook, Interpreting the Self: Autobiography in the Arabic Literary Tradition and The Cambridge Companion to Modern Arab Culture. He publishes on Arabic literature, folklore, and music, and is currently completing a book manuscript titled The Musical Heritage of al-Andalus.
Contemplating the Fate of Books with Usama ibn Munqidh's Book of Contemplation
The Book of Contemplation (Kitab al-I'tibar) of Usama ibn Munqidh (d. 1188) is one of the best-known and beloved Arabic texts from the era of the Crusades. Written in an intimate, chatty style, it has often been called Usama's "memoirs" for its inner musings and illuminating window into the private life of a medieval warrior-poet and his household. Yet the book only survives in one MS copy made by a descendant of Usama's, suggesting the book was never very well-known in its own day. This paper traces the history of this book and roots its popularity in the complex cocktail of 19th-century Orientalism mixed with early 20th-century Medievalism--not to mention 21st-century anxieties about Islam.
Paul M. Cobb is Professor of Islamic History and Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He is the author of the short biography, Usama ibn Munqidh: Warrior-Poet of the Age of Crusades (Oxford: Oneworld, 2004) and is the translator and editor of The Book of Contemplation for Penguin Classics (2008). His most recent book is The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades (Oxford, 2014).
“Let No Bad Song Be Sung of Us”:
No work from the French Middle Ages is better known than the Chanson de Roland. It is one of the texts most likely to figure in school curricula and, since the nineteenth century, has been used to exemplify the precociousness not only of medieval French literature but of French national identity. Yet despite its iconic status, the poem in the version we know today survives in only one copy—in a manuscript now housed at Oxford’s Bodleian library. My talk will explore the discrepancies between the Roland’s political and literary significance in the modern era with the precariousness of the medieval textual tradition.
“The Best Book I Have”:
The early modern antiquary Peter Manwood (d. 1625) wrote in one manuscript that it was “the best book I have.” This is not usually how anyone would describe the book he was inscribing, a scrappy collection of history writing and state papers re-copied in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries. The claim is all the more remarkable when one notes that Manwood owned a landmark of Romanesque art, the exquisitely illuminated Ashmole Bestiary. This talk will consider Manwood’s modest library, and Robert Cotton’s rather immodest library, to expose some of the unexpected priorities of the second generation of collectors of medieval manuscripts.
Matthew Fisher is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. His first book, Scribal Authorship and the Writing of History in Medieval England, was published in 2012. Pursuing the long (and short) afterlives of medieval manuscripts, he is currently at work on a book about library fires.
The Alexander Romance:
Shamma Boyarin is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of English at the University of Victoria, where he is also the director of the Religious Studies program. His scholarship looks at the interaction between Medieval Hebrew and Arabic literature, the overlap between religious and secular themes in literature, and religion and pop culture in both medieval and modern contexts. His article “Hebrew Alexander Romance and Astrological Questions: Alexander Aristotle, and the Medieval Jewish Audience “ was published in 2016 in Alexander the Great in the Middle Ages: Transcultural Perspectives edited by Markus Stock, UoT Press.
The Story of AsenethOriginating as a Judeo-Hellenistic novella, progressively elaborated in Greek from the second century BCE through the sixth century CE, the tale of how the Hebrew patriarch Joseph came to marry an Egyptian woman, Aseneth, the daughter of the high priest of Heliopolis, became, over the course late Antiquity and through the Christian Middle Ages, one of the most widely disseminated literary works in the Levantine-Mediterranean and northern European world. In addition to the several Greek recensions, multiple versions of the narrative exist in Syriac, Armenian, Old Serbian, Latin, Ethiopic, Middle High German, Old French, Middle English, and Icelandic. The paper will address itself principally to two issues: (1) what features of the narrative per se not only lend themselves to, but effectively promote the translation and resituation of the story from one language and one culture to the next; and (2) why does what was once one of the major works of world literature all but disappear in the early modern era.
Daniel L. Selden received his Ph.D. from Yale University in Comparative Literature in 1986. He is currently Professor of Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, with previous appointments at The New School for Social Research, Columbia University, Stanford University, Emory University, and the University of Chicago. His interests and publications range widely from Akkadian epic to contemporary Hong Kong Cinema. Along with Phiroze Vasunia, Professor of Greek at University College London, he is currently editing The Oxford Handbook to Literatures of the Roman Empire, a work which—beyond Greek and Latin—discusses in detail over thirty other literatures that flourished concomitantly under Roman rule (e.g., Hebrew, Iberian, Syriac, Punic, Nabataean, Armenian). Recent publications include: Hieroglyphic Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Literature of the Middle Kingdom (University of California Press, 2013) and the coedited proceedings of the 2014 DFG-Symposion Allegorie (De Gruyter, 2016).
Compulsive Translation: The travels of Tawaddud/Teodor
Explores the popularity of an Arabic encyclopedic tale of a scholarly slave girl who wins a knowledge contest over the greatest scholars of her time, through its complex and wide-ranging history of medieval and renaissance translation. Edward Lane omitted it from his English translation of the 1001 Nights as "extremely tiresome," and yet it seems to have been compulsively taken up by whoever encountered it. The story was anthologized in Egyptian versions of the 1001 Nights, but also circulated independently (a late manuscript exists in UCLA's Caro-Minasian collection. It was translated into Spanish and Christianized in the thirteenth century, went through several print editions, was dramatized into a popular comedy by Lope de Vega, and was taken by missionaries to the New World, where versions exist in Brazil, and in Mayan, in four of the Mayan community books -- where it is also arguably adapted to bespeak Mayan colonial resistance. Meanwhile, the Portuguese brought it to the Philippines, where Tagalog versions extended it into a two part episodic romance romance, also arguably expressing indigenous resistance to colonialism. This paper explores the complex allure of this story and its adaptability both to teaching tale and register of cultural resistance.
Christine Chism joined the faculty of UCLA in 2009, after holding positions at Rutgers University, and Allegheny College. Since completing her first book, Alliterative Revivals (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), she has been working on several projects. Mortal Friends: The Politics of Friendship in Medieval England, forthcoming from Penn, explores the social force of friendship in a range of late medieval texts. A second project, Strange Knowledge: Translation and Cultural Transmission in the Arabic and English Middle Ages, draws upon the skills amassed while working on a Mellon New Directions fellowship between 2003 and 2005. Chris has also been working on the medieval Arabic and European travel narratives and the Middle English and Arabic Alexander romances.
They Love Me in Shiraz:
This conference has explored the definitions of the medieval bestseller in an age before print, the pathways in which such texts circulated, and the puzzle of why certain works faded into obscurity despite their ubiquity in the medieval world. This presentation addresses the question: Why teach bestsellers? What do they offer that the "classic" does not? In the fall of 2016, I taught a seminar on the medieval Islamic literary bestseller and found myself exploring familiar works in unexpected ways alongside texts I'd never considered "fit" for a college syllabus. In this presentation, I discuss what I learned and what I hope my students learned too.
Elias Muhanna is the Manning Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Brown. His books include an abridged translation of a 14th-century Arabic encyclopedia, The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition (Penguin Classics, 2016), an edited volume, The Digital Humanities and Islamic & Middle East Studies (De Gruyter, 2016), and the forthcoming monograph, The World in a Book: Al-Nuwayri and the Islamic Encyclopedic Tradition(Princeton, December 2017). Muhanna is a contributing writer for NewYorker.com and his essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, and many other periodicals.