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The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary…

The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage

by Maria Rosa Menocal

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Meaningful silences punctuate our lives. How silent is a first kiss, yet how potentially significant?

In this history of literary histories, Menocal delves deeply into a hush that fell on certain theses -- certain most undesireable theses -- as the 19th century dawned. She deftly traces an intellectual theory of the birth of the poetry of courtly love from Dante's level Latin language defense of the vernacular through Schlegal's mind-numbing dismissal through those enormous silences of the 19th and 20th centuries and on to the more riotous days of her student youth.

The theory -- that most undesirable, unimaginable theory -- would potentially root the emergence of European vernacular poetry of the troubadours not in a moment of proto-French genius summoning rhymes of courtly love from the mists but in a moment of Andalusian (and distinctly Mozarabic) brilliance that recreates and recasts the worlds and sounds before it.

Wisely, in this magical tale of literary and linguistic adventures, Menocal does not begin with the theory itself, which has been researched, argued, buttressed, and reinforced from Medieval times to the present, in many languages and many times. Instead, she launches into the poetry of the many cultures of the time, both Romance and Arabic, and then moves on to the history of the silence. We hear Dante struggling in Latin with thoughts on the vernacular and the sources of his inspiration; we hear Arabic and Mozarabic speaking women finding new masters among the Christians as the Reconquista commences, we hear forms emerge from the classical Arabic and in the Mozarabic and Provencal and Sicilian vernaculars, and then, we hear silence. First, Schlegel's dismissal: "they" don't love or treat women as "we" do; "our" love and our poetry are ours alone, not theirs; we listen to the ignorance and intense pride of emergent Europe, and we watch as the theory is isolated and sequestered among the Arabists. The silence falls.

Understanding the history of the theory reveals the theory itself, playing out in the world in which the poetry and conceptions of courtly love emerged. Menocal raises question after question, all good questions, but denies us the answers. We can look and listen for ourselves. She gives us ears.

This is a personal work, autobiographical in places, exploring a personal intellectual history written on a grand scale. Much of Menocal's thesis is unsurprising to today's historians - indeed, her discussion of the interaction of Islamic, Judaic and Christian cultures on the fringes of Medieval Catholic Christendom, whether in Al-Andalus, the islands of the Mediterranean, the Byzantine empire and its successors, or the ever-changing Slavic lands, would be self-evident among the historians with whom I studied. But in the world of Romance literature and literary history, the interaction and cross-pollination, the notion of Arabic genes in European poetry undermines fundamental mythologies that are deeply resilent and shape the very basis of the "western canon". The clash of history and mythology can be among the most challenging and deeply personal of dialectics; the recognition of the unity of the mythological and historically can be fundamentally shocking. Menocal leads us through her and now our journey.

So, in this deeply poetical work, Menocal breaks through the silence to listen to voices that have spoken to us for centuries. It was never truly silent anyways: that first kiss always fills the silence, laying open new possibilities. So with Menocal: read carefully and inherit a broader world, one whose words and emotions are freed from a narrow pennisula. The possibilities.... ( )
17 vote A_musing | Mar 8, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812213246, Paperback)

Arabic culture was a central and shaping phenomenon in medieval Europe, yet its influence on medieval literature has been ignored or marginalized for the last two centuries. In this ground-breaking book, now returned to print with a new afterword by the author, María Rosa Menocal argues that major modifications of the medieval canon and its literary history are necessary.

Menocal reviews the Arabic cultural presence in a variety of key settings, including the courts of William of Aquitaine and Frederick II, the universities in London, Paris, and Bologna, and Cluny under Peter the Venerable, and she examines how our perception of specific texts including the courtly love lyric and the works of Dante and Boccaccio would be altered by an acknowledgment of the Arabic cultural component.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:06 -0400)

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