Remapping the Middle Ages



A course I taught at City College:

In the Middle Ages, the large, cosmopolitan cities where art and science flourished surrounded the Mediterranean. England was a backwater; London was a small city far from the highly networked urban centers to the south and east. After the fragmentation of the Roman Empire, the action was from Isfahan, Baghdad, Cairo, and Byzantine Istanbul in the east to Seville and Cordoba in Muslim Spain. Eventually Florence and Toledo became centers of a rising Christian culture with the defeat of the Andalusian khalifs and the returning Crusaders, who brought science, technology, philosophy, and poetic traditions from Greek, Indo-Persian, and Arabic spheres into Christian Europe.

This course will give a taste of some of the literary products of this rich, diverse, and long period. Prokopios will lay waste to late classical Constantinople. Abu Qasim and company will shock us with outrageous Abassid cursing. We will travel north with Ibn Fadlan, south with Ibn Battuta, and rummage through “the attic of Islam” via al-Nuwayri’s Egyptian encyclopedia. We will explore the language of divine intoxication in Sufi poetry. The Arabian Nights and the Maqamat will introduce the frame narrative and the picaresque, providing the model for later adaptations like The Decameron and Lazarillo de Tormes. By then we will have arrived to early modernity, a time of growing contact between the Mediterranean, Africa, Asia, and the Americas—a whole new world.

This will be an unusual class in the English department, because nothing we will read was written in English. Instead we will read works in translation from Greek, Arabic, Italian, and Spanish. The material is rough, often sexual and filthy, sometimes offensive in other ways as well. Be warned! It is also fabulous, hilarious, and shows the roots of much of what we think of as the literary.