Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A 10th-century Monk in the Caliph's Court

Researching my book The Abacus and the Cross, I discovered several facets of the Viking Age that I hadn't been aware of. One was the intersection of faith and science in Islamic Spain: as I mentioned in last week's blog post, al-Andalus in the 9th and 10th centuries was an amazingly tolerant culture in which learning was prized.

The story of John of Gorze shows just how tolerant it could be.

The story begins with an embassy sent north by the Caliph Abd al-Rahmann III. The Holy Roman Emperor was pleased with the caliph's exotic gifts, but the caliph's letter confounded Otto the Great. Like his peers, the Holy Roman Emperor found Islam incomprehensible. Muslims worshipped the One God. They revered the patriarchs, the Virgin Mary—even Jesus, though they denied he was the Son of God. They “read the Hebrew prophets (or rather, those of the Christians),” noted the 11th-century chronicler Ralph the Bald, “claiming that what they foretold concerning Jesus Christ, Lord of all, is now fulfilled in the person of Muhammad, one of their people.” What could it be, the emperor and his rather narrow-minded counselors asked, but a Christian heresy?

Complicating the emperor’s response even further was the fact that Abd al-Rahman’s ambassador had died. Otto needed a messenger who was tough and expendable. John of Gorze volunteered.

The Life of John, Abbot of Gorze was written between 974 and 984 by a monk to whom he had told his stories. John’s toughness is amply illustrated, as is his narrow-mindedness. John's rich father, nearing ninety, married a young noblewoman; he begat three sons before he died. John was raised to be his father's heir and, as an adolescent, found himself in charge of vast estates.

He managed them well until one day, visiting a nunnery from which he rented a manor, he saw a beautiful girl. Her rosy skin was revealed by the fine garment she wore, but just at her bosom was an ugly tangle of something. Curious (and used to getting his own way), John slipped his hand down her dress. Touching that awful roughness, he began trembling with horror. It was a hair shirt. The girl, blushing, said, “Do you not know that we do not live for this world?”

From then on, John wanted to be a monk, the more ascetic the better. Finding a sufficiently rigorous monastery at Gorze, he donated all his wealth—beggaring his two brothers, who had to become monks as well. He outdid the other monks in depriving himself of food, clothing, baths, soft beds, or comfort of any sort. Finding he enjoyed the study of logic, he vowed to read nothing thenceforth but scripture.

As the emperor’s ambassador, John traveled to Barcelona in 953 with French slave-traders who were ferrying Slavic captives to Cordoba to be sold as eunuchs. He stayed two weeks with Count Borrell, a Christian ally of the caliph’s, who sent a warning south.

Reaching Cordoba, John was stopped two miles from the palace and escorted to a house. There he stayed as a pampered guest for three years—for the contents of Emperor Otto’s letter were known to the caliph, thanks to the count of Barcelona. Though we can only guess at what the emperor said about Islam, it was clearly offensive: According to the laws of al-Andalus, anyone repeating such things about the Prophet Muhammad must be put to death.

Rather than bring things to that extreme, the caliph sent his Jewish vizier, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, to explain the problem to John of Gorze. “Our people attest that they have never met nor heard of a wiser man,” says The Life of John. Why not destroy the letter, Hasdai suggested, and just present the emperor's gifts? John refused to disobey the emperor, but suggested that perhaps he should send to Otto asking for new instructions.

The caliph’s Christian vizier, Bishop Racemundo, volunteered to go north. He was “a good catholic,” says The Life of John, with “an important function at court.” He was “perfectly instructed in our culture as well as in that of the Arab language.” He arrived at Gorze in six weeks and rested there until after Christmas, when he was presented to Emperor Otto at Frankfurt.

In Frankfurt, Racemundo met the nun Hrosvit of Gandersheim, then only 15 or 20 years old. She would become well known for her comedies, written in the style of Terence, in which self-confident little Christian girls make fun of the pagan fools who martyr them.

Hrosvit recorded her conversation with Racemundo in a poem about a young Christian killed for blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammad. Though her understanding of Islam was warped and her depiction of Abd al-Rahman not complimentary, she does accurately convey Cordoba’s religious tolerance. The caliph issued a pronouncement, she writes, that said: “Whoever so desired to serve the Eternal King,” meaning Christ, “and desired to honor the customs of his sires, might do so without fear of any retribution. Only a single condition he set to be observed, namely that no dweller of the aforesaid city should presume to blaspheme” the prophet Mohammed's name. This was the problem Racemundo had come to Otto’s court to solve.

Racemundo returned to Cordoba in June, bringing a “less severe” letter and instructions from Emperor Otto the Great for John of Gorze to negotiate peace. After three years of waiting, John was brought to the caliph’s palace. The Life of John describes the armed guards along the route: the knights on their fine horses, the scary-looking black soldiers. It notes the precious rugs and tapestries in the palace and, in the throne room, the “extraordinary curtains, which made the walls look sunlit.” As an Arabic writer explains, the walls were paneled with gold and in the middle of the room was a pool of quicksilver—mercury—off which the sunlight bounced. At a sign from the caliph, his slaves would vigorously stir it, setting off lightning flashes that induced vertigo in his terrified petitioners.

Abd al-Rahman, lounging on a divan, offered John a chair and apologized for not seeing him sooner. John praised the caliph for his “constant heart” and “measured wisdom.” They discussed kingship. The caliph said he thought Emperor Otto was imprudent: He gave his underlings too much power—and at that point The Life of John, Abbot of Gorze breaks off.

John returned to Gorze and conveyed these carefully reasoned descriptions of the Jewish vizier Hasdai, the Christian vizier Racemundo, and the Muslim caliph Abd al-Rahman to his biographer. John became abbot in 967 and died in 973.

To learn more about medieval al-Andalus, I recommend The Ornament of the World by Maria Menocal. The title of her book comes from Hrosvit of Gandersheim’s poem about Cordoba.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! And his conversion is interesting; must be a medieval topos, since the Italian poet Jacopone da Todi also converted from high livin' to ascetic monasticism when his beloved wife was killed in an accident and he discovered to his horror that she had been wearing a hair shirt unbeknownst to him.