culturally hybrid literature in medieval Europe

Distinguishing between literary structure and content seems like beating poetry with the dead hand of Plato’s binary opposition of appearance and essence.  Can artistic content be more real than Yves Klein’s “zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility”The Book of Martyrs, first published in 1563, asserted the Church of England’s fidelity to God’s word with a book that had the heft of an immovable rock.  Is that material form truly meaningless?[1]  Such questions tend to lead to mind-numbing “post-structuralist” attempts to essentialize dominance and ignore the obvious.  Plumbers know better.  If a tool can clear a clog, use it.  The binary opposition between structure and content can help to identify culturally hybrid literature in medieval Europe and clear up blockages in appreciation of that literature.

The literary plumber’s structure-content tool is relatively easy to use.  Distinguish between a work’s literary structure and content.  In practice, ordinary persons can do that about as successfully as they can distinguish between females and males.  Distinguish reasonably between a newly established, dominant culture and a long-settled, subordinate culture.  That’s also doable.  Hybrid literature affirming the cultural hierarchy tends to use structure from the new, dominant culture and content from the settled, subordinate culture.  Hybrid literature critical of the dominant culture tends to use the reverse configuration.  That literature uses structure from the settled, subordinate culture and content from the new, dominant culture.  This structure-content tool provides a readily understandable means for describing hybrid literature and considering its relationship to supporting cultures.[2]

hybrid Hispano-Moresque basin

In terms of structure and content, the fourteenth-century Spanish work Libro de buen amor is culturally hybrid literature.  Libro de buen amor’s structure comes from Arabic literature.  Its episodic narrative of a roguish clerk is similar to that of the Arabic maqāma genre.  The clerk’s failures in Libro de buen amor associate that work with the Andalusī zajal poetry.  Libro de buen amor’s framing narrative and embedded stories, including stories used as thrusts in debate, are a structure like that in the Arabic Kalīla wa-Dimna and the Sindibad corpusLibro de buen amor’s content, however, largely has Graeco-Roman and European Christian sources.  Written in Spain after Christians reconquered it, Libro de buen amor uses structure from the settled, subordinate culture (Arabic, mediated partly through Hebrew) and content from the new, dominant culture (Romano-Latin).  That’s consistent with Libro de buen amor’s subversive, critical orientation to clerical-scholastic European culture.[3]

The medieval Latin work Solomon and Marcolf is also culturally hybrid literature.  Marcolf came to the throne of King Solomon “from the direction of the East.”[4]  Solomon and Marcolf’s high-level structure is a confrontation of wisdom authorities like that in the Hebrew Pseudo-Sirach.  Solomon and Marcolf deploys explicit, playful, analogical references to bodily functions within literature that also displays high cultural sophistication.  That’s similar to Pseudo-Sirach and Arabic literature such as that of al-Jahiz.  Solomon and Marcolf culminates in concern about malice toward men and interest in the literature of men’s sexed protestsSerious interest in the question of men characterizes Arabic and Hebrew literature much more than Latin literature.  The content of Solomon and Marcolf, in contrast, seems to come from European clerical culture.  While it’s written in Latin, Solomon and Marcolf has a colloquial tone and is filled with constructions and words that “could point to an author whose native language was Romance, perhaps French.”[5]  All the content of Solomon and Marcolf is consistent with that of Latin and Romano-European literature.  Nothing in the content of Solomon and Marcolf clearly draws attention to post-biblical Hebrew literature or Arabic literature.  Jews are not explicitly mentioned at all in the earliest, main text, and neither are Arabs.[6]  Solomon speaks words of a European Christian preacher, and Marcolf, words of a cunning, perverse European peasant:

Solomon: Four evangelists uphold the world.

Marcolf: Four support-posts uphold the privy, so that the person who sits over it does not fall. [7]

Written in Christian-dominated Europe, Solomon and Marcolf uses structure from the subordinate culture (Hebrew, and more distantly, Arabic) and content from the dominant culture (Romano-Latin).  Like Libro de buen amor, Solomon and Marcolf is hybrid literature offering a subversive, critical orientation to clerical-scholastic European culture.

Trotaconventos’s encounter with the Moorish girl in Libro de buen amor confirms the value of the considering hybrid structure and content.  Trotaconventos offered the Archpriest of Hita’s love to a Moorish girl.  She resolutely refused to accept that offer.  In sharp contrast to the preceding, long story-dispute between Trotaconventos and the nun Lady Garoza, the Moorish girl responded with only a few words.  Those words are common expressions from Arabic.[8]  Medieval European Christian texts characteristically differ from eastern Hebrew or Arabic texts in verbosity:

we are immediately struck by the difference between the direct informative approach of the Christian text and the desire for narrativeness, for expansion and integration of new narrative elements, in the eastern text. …  In western tradition the answers are basically brief and relate directly and concisely to the subject.  … In eastern texts, on the other hand, the question is merely the starting point for a story, only indirectly of moral or aetiological significance, which provides the answer to the opening question: it is strikingly evident that the questions do not constitute a didactic means but rather a rhetorical device serving as the pretext for telling a tale. [9]

Living in Spain after Christians had reconquered it, the Moorish girl uses structure from the dominant culture (Romano-Latin) and content from the subordinate culture (Arabic words).  The Moorish girl thus affirms the existing cultural hierarchy.  But within Libro de buen amor itself, the Moorish girl critically opposes the Archpriest of Hita’s quest.

Sophisticated medieval European literature is not a monolith of Latin-Christian culture.  Ideas have always moved across Eurasia.  So too have people.[10]  A division between content and structure in the analysis of Libro de buen amor and Solomon and Marcolf isn’t a perfect model and doesn’t essentialize a conceptual boundary.  It provides a useful intellectual tool.  It helps to appreciate those works as culturally hybrid medieval European literature.

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[1] For relevant discussion, Galbi (2003), esp. Ch. 4.

[2] This paragraph describes my understanding of the analytical model set out in Monroe (2011).

[3] This paragraph summarizes claims in id.  My own view is that Libro de buen amor parodies the mirror-for-princes genre as transmitted through Arabic literature like Secret of Secrets.  That alternative is consistent with the above structure-content understanding of Libro de buen amor as hybrid literature.

[4] Solomon and Marcolf Part 1, Prologue, l. 1, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (2008) p. 53.

[5] Ziolkowski (2008), Introduction, p. 11.  Manuscripts of Solomon and Marcolf are predominately associated with southern Germany and Austria, while early printed versions are predominately from northern Germany and Low-German cities, e.g. Antwerp, Cologne, Deventer, and Leipzig.  Id. p. 13.

[6] At the peak of its popularity in the fifteenth century, Solomon and Marcolf was relatively popular in:

schools, circles in which the northern European equivalent to humanism flourished, and circles in which scholasticism prevailed.

Id. p. 13.  Bradbury (2008), p. 342, states:

The scholarly consensus holds that the Dialogus {Solomon and Marcolf} arose in a clerical context, on the basis of the choice of Latin, the allusions to academic disputation, the abundant scriptural quotations in the speeches of Solomon, and the technical skill revealed in the close syntactic parody of Scripture assigned to Marcolf.

Ziolkowski (2008), Commentary, p. 287, notes, “Jews are not mentioned at all in the main text.”  Id. pp. 285-6 provides an alternative verse beginning that starts, “I am King Solomon, who rules the Jews by law.”  This alternative beginning probably was included in the Solomon and Marcolf corpus in the fifteenth century.  Id. p. 287.  Except among various attestations of proverbs and folktales, Ziolkowski (2008) and Bradbury (2008) indicate little distinctive contribution of post-biblical Hebrew literature and Arabic literature to the content of Solomon and Marcolf.

[7] Solomon and Marcolf Dialogue, 38a-b, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (2008) p. 59.

[8] The relevant text is Libro de buen amor, ll. 1508-1512.  On the Arabic words, Monroe (2011) pp. 37-39.

[9] Yassif (1982) pp. 57, 58, 59.

[10] On failures to appreciate adequately the interactions of European literatures with Hebrew and Arabic literatures, Wacks (2010) and Akbari & Mallette (2013).

[image] Hispano-Moresque basin, early-to-mid 15th century.  Earthenware with underglaze and luster decoration. Walters Art Museum, 48.1013.


Akbari, Suzanne Conklin, and Karla Mallette. 2013. A sea of languages: rethinking the Arabic role in medieval literary history. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Bradbury, Nancy Mason. 2008. “Rival Wisdom in the Latin Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf.” Speculum. 83 (2): 331-365.

Galbi, Douglas.  2003.  Sense in Communication.  Worldwide: Internet Printing Press.

Monroe, James T. 2011. “Arabic literary elements in the structure of the Libro de buen amor,” in parts I & II. Al-Qanṭara. 32 (1): 27-70; 32 (2): 307-332.

Wacks, David A. 2010. “Toward a History of Hispano-Hebrew Literature in its Romance Context.” eHumanista 14:178-209.

Yassif, Eli. 1982. “Pseudo Ben Sira and the ‘Wisdom Questions’ Tradition in the Middle Ages.” Fabula. 23 (1): 48-63.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2008. Solomon and Marcolf. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University.

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