Abstracts for 2023 MLA Session on Middle English Encounters with Islamicate and Persianate Culture

1. “The Saladin Paladin Paradigm in Middle English Romance”, Chris Chism, UCLA (chism@english.ucla.edu)

When Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub joined the lands of Syria and Egypt beneath a single Sunni rule, he and his family were Kurds who rose to state power not through high birth and right descent but through service and military leadership.  They thus seized power from the margins and had to work in extraordinary ways to establish their rule. Salah al-Din transformed cultural eccentricity into a performance of the most central and appeal cultural ideals of his constituents, fostering images of himself as pious Sunni Muslim, exemplary sovereign, and effective military commander.  His biographers thus create in him a vision of chivalric strength and piety remarkable in its appeal both within and beyond the Dar al-Islam.  They helped create Salah al-Din’s transhistorical appeal by making him the lynchpin of narrative emotional regimes that resonated not only with Islamic receptions but beyond them to Latin Christian and European ones.

Salah al-Din exerted appeal by capitalizing on three distinct areas of affective connection: 1) nostalgia for a lost but glorious past, 2) hospitality to strangers through diplomatic gift-exchanges, and 3) a sense of kinship rooted in family.  These affective features persist even within hostile English and French stories of the Sultan of Egypt.  This paper, part of a longer project on Saladin, looks at Saladin’s literary shadows in the Middle English Floris and Blanchefleur, and the Insular Book of John Mandeville, to argue that Latin Christian writers sometimes write Saladin and his avatars dialogically to open transactions and foster emotional community across religious lines.  So read, Saladin’s preeminence becomes less a fixed exception to anti-Muslim racial hostilities than an ongoing dynamic that reexamines uncanny, deeply felt proximities between and within cultures.

2. “Encountering the Arabic auctour in Middle English Poetry”, Shazia Jagot, University of York (shazia.jagot@york.ac.uk)

A number of Arabic and Persian polymathic figures appear in Chaucer’s poetry: ‘Avycen’ (Avicenna; Ibn Sina) ‘Averois’ (Averroes; Ibn Rushd); ‘Myssal’ (Messahalla; Masha’Allah ibn Athari); ‘Alocen’ (Alhacen; Ibn al-Haytham) all of whom encapsulate an extraordinary range of rich scholarship on the natural sciences, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, alchemy, cultivated and produced in locations that stretched across the Islamicate world from Samanid Persia, to Almohad Andalusia, Fatimid Cairo, and Abbasid Baghdad. And yet, more than often within the context of Middle English poetics, these names are either dismissed as colourful citations or collapsed into a generic mould of Arabic medieval philosophers. This paper demonstrates how we can reposition critical readings and approaches to our encounters with these Arabic cultural figures and their textual work in Middle English writing, which has thus far been clouded by Eurocentric approaches to ideas of ‘influence’ and the parameters of ‘sources and analogues’. By way of example, this paper focuses on the textual imprint of two Arabic figures, Ibn al-Haytham (‘Alocen’) and Mash’Allah ibn Athari (‘Myssal’), in Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale and The Treatise on an Astrolabe. By working within the Islamic cultural context that produced these works, and across the Arabic mathematical texts attributed to both authors, including Ibn al-Haytham’s Kitab al-Manazir (‘Book of Optics’) and the Latin astrolabe treatises attributed to Messahalla, this paper will shed new light on Chaucer’s poetic and discursive engagement with an Arabic intellectual heritage that is both mathematical and literary. Moreover, it argues that repositioning our critical approaches beyond ‘sources and analogues’ is vital for understanding the complex and entangled genealogies of learning from Arabic to Middle English and the multiple ways in which this cultural and intellectual heritage is at work in Chaucer’s writing.

3. ““Prester John’s Kingdom and the Translation of Persian imperium”, Shirin A. Khanmohamadi, San Francisco State University (shirin1@sfsu.edu)

Medievalists have long recognized the convergence of Mongol imperial genealogies with the genealogy of Prester John, the mythical Christian Asian potentate, in the wake of the establishment of the vast Mongol empire in the 13th century, noting that this mode of genealogical invention served to exalt both the Mongols and revivify and sustain the Prester John myth. What’s been less remarked upon is that in the 12th century, before the rise of the Mongols, the Latin west constructed the empire of Prester John in relation to, indeed as successor-through- conquest to, another eastern power, that of the Persians.  This talk will examine the multiple and layered references to and appropriations of Persianate imperium within the relatively neglected twelfth century Anglo-Norman Letter of Prester John, and their continuations in the far better studied 14th century Middle English Book of John Mandeville.  The Anglo-Norman Letter of Prester John (extant in two manuscripts, one currently held in Dublin, the other at Yale) in fact enacts Prester John’s translations of both ancient and contemporary Persianate imperium through geographical references that point to both ancient, pre-lslamic Achaemenid imperium and contemporary Persianate ones like the Seljuqs, well known to the Latin west since the First Crusade.

The construction of the realm of Prester John in the Letter of Prester John and Mandeville’s Travels out of the material resources of the legendary Orient — rivers of precious gems and spices, opulent palaces of shining jewels, wondrous automata –meant, moreover, that the legendary Christian Asian kingdom—a kingdom designed to buttress hopes of Christian dominion—was paradoxically drawn closely in the image of rival contemporary Islamic empires. Collating these various forms of Persian imperial appropriation, this talk considers the way in which the aspirational empires of the high medieval Latin Christian world, and the Latin Christian notion of “empire” itself, took shape through an ambivalent emulation and appropriation of Islamicate and Asian authority and imperium beginning in the high medieval period and extending into the conquests of the “New World.”

4. “The Pearl Poet, Jahan Malek Khatun, and the Poetics of Loss”, Sarah McNamer, Georgetown University (mcnamer@georgetown.edu) During the pandemic, a small book of medieval Persian elegies appeared in English translation: Pearls that Soak My Dress: Elegies for a Child, by the fourteenth-century Inju princess Jahan Malek Khatun, translated by Dick Davis.   Consisting of 23 poems of grief for her infant daughter, Jahan’s poems invite comparison with the Middle English Pearl. It is not impossible that the Pearl poet knew of the lush, sensuous style of Persian poetry; as Davis has observed in another context, there are lines of transmission that can be traced from east to west, as, for example, with the possible influence of Gorgani’s romance Vis and Ramin on the Tristan legend.   But this paper is not about influence.  Its mode will be one of contemporary encounter.   What can happen in the classroom, for example, when we invite our students to compare the work of these fourteenth-century poets writing within very different cultural frameworks — frameworks that not only shape literary strategies and beliefs but the ways that grief and consolation can be experienced?  And what can happen in our research when Middle English scholars extend ourselves beyond our core areas of competence, forging collaborations with experts in Persian literature in particular?   The second half of this talk builds on my own collaborative efforts and offers a reading of the poetics of loss in Pearl and Jahan’s elegies, focusing on the cognitive and affective affordances of metaphor and contrasting Pearl‘s mineral aesthetics with Jahan’s investment in the floral.

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