The Mysteries of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library

There must be something secret brewing in the Mezzanine. Why else the high security? “STAFF ONLY: This door does not lead to an exit or any Museum Exhibits” warns not one but two signs in the stairwell. The door is locked. I myself have even seen the stairs barred by a velvet rope.

What are they trying to hide?

What are they trying to hide?

A distinguished scholar of medieval literature

A distinguished scholar of medieval literature

I speak not yet as an insider, but soon. I am but the latest initiate in the Mysteries of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, joining this curious cult alongside my colleague Sasha Benov (who blogged recently). Grand Mystagogue Raquel Begleiter has guided us through the first ceremonies, and we all await our ultimate meeting with the Pontifex Maximus Jan Ziolkowski.

What secrets I have obtained so far I will share – but many are those which I know lie ahead to be discovered, and more are those whose existence I cannot even yet fathom. In the infamous words of Donald Rumsfeld – not an initiate in the Mysteries of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library:

 

“There are known unknowns: that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns: there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

Not a distinguished scholar of medieval literature

Not a distinguished scholar of medieval literature

This I know: next year, we will be publishing a volume entitled Latin Lives of Muhammad. The book collects medieval writing on Islam and its patriarch. It’s my job to edit the volume’s spelling, formatting, and style. Among the texts I’ve edited so far, I’ve encountered a 9th century Latin translation of the Byzantine chronicler Theophanes, an anonymous 14th century biography of Muhammad, an anonymous biography from a manuscript in Pisa, and a controversial work known as The Apology of al-Kindi, a Latin translation of an Arabic text that claims to be two letters exchanged between a Muslim and a Christian.

Unsurprisingly, all of these texts are extremely hostile towards the Islamic faith. However, they are fascinating pieces of historical evidence. For example, although the Western texts graphically defame Islam, their cruel satires show a degree of Christian knowledge of Islamic religion and folklore. The hajj and the prohibition of alcohol and pork make appearances, as do references to daily prayers, the Islamic view of paradise, and tales about Muhammad’s miracles.

Illustration of Muhammad from a Latin translation of the Qu'ran

Illustration of Muhammad from a Latin translation of the Qu’ran

Of course, the Christian authors twist these facts in their propaganda. The Pisan manuscript horrifyingly explains the prohibition of pork by telling the story of a Jewish woman who deceives Muhammad (who had hoped to make love to her), kills him, and feeds his body to swine in a sewer. Because of this, Muslims now refuse to eat pork, the author explains. Beneath its repulsive exterior, this tale shows that one cannot mock a belief without knowing about it first.

Fascinatingly, both the anonymous 14th century text and the Pisan manuscript present Islam as a Christian heresy – not as a foreign religion. In the first, Muhammad is revealed to be the adopted name of Nicholas, an early Christian deacon who left the Church to found his own religion in act of revenge. In the second, Muhammad is merely a camel-herder duped by an evil Christian named Maurus, himself a companion of Nicholas. This rewriting of history strips the Muslims’ Muhammad of his agency, reducing him to a puppet figure in an intra-Christian battle between true faith and heresies. It also reveals the true purpose of the text: to rally Christian readers behind a uniform religious identity by warning them of the consequences of religious betrayal. Most appropriate literature for a period of crusading.

Without doubt, this volume will make waves – as much as any bilingual edition of medieval literature can, at least.

I have many more rites to complete in the Mysteries of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. As I learn more secrets, I will certainly share them.

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