Medieval is In!
Bill Long 9/18/06
I spend a good deal of my time looking for signs in the popular culture that the deep historical past is being drawn upon to teach us lessons for today. Thus, I couldn't help but notice in Pope Benedict's lecture in Regensburg last week that he made references to Manuel II Paleologus and Ibn Hazm. Then, I saw the 2005 movie Bee Season with a friend Saturday night, and extensive reference was made to the 13th century Jewish Kabbalist Abraham Abulafia. Even though the snaphots give by the Pope and movie were inadequate, partial and even quite misleading, they nevertheless stimulated me to add these figures to my mental store of images. So, I spent some time studying each of the three and deepened my understanding of aspects of the medieval period. In this essay all I want to do is to say a word about each of the three, proceeding chronologically.
Ibn Hazm--11th Century
Pope Benedict referred to Ibn Hazm as an extreme example of voluntarism in Islamic theology. Voluntarism is that philosophy which asserts that God's will (voluntas) is untrammeled and free, not even limited by the assertions made in the Holy Texts about himself. I decided, therefore, to spend some time with Ibn Hazm in 11th century Spain. Here is a helpful encyclopedia article about him. I learned that he was living at the decline of the Umayyad caliphat at Cordoba, and that he was imprisoned and banished for siding with the "wrong" people in the ensuing internal battles within the Muslim community. Not unlike Plato more than a millennium before him, he became disgusted with the internal political infighting, left public life, and devoted the last thirty years of his life to literary activities. What is striking to me about the article (and absent in the Pope's reference) is how Hazm placed himself within the context of various schools of Islamic legal dispute at the time, siding with the Zahiri school in his reading of the Quran. Much of his effort was therefore focused on language, how to read the text, and the relationship of literal language to reasoning by analogy, recourse to personal opinion and the consensus of the community. Very little of his work is related to the subject which Pope Benedict found so interesting in his Regensburg speech; actually, as I got into the article more and more I became drawn to the issue of separating once again for myself the various schools of Islamic jurisprudence, wanting to get all the significant 'players' straight from the 7th -11th centuries, and, eventually, wanting to learn Arabic. Thus, even though I criticize the Pope for his speech, I am grateful to him for opening up this little window for me, a window that will beckon me to crack it wider.
Abraham Abulafia--13th Century
A different kind of reference arises from the 2005 movie Bee Season. The movie, which is almost as confused as Benedict is in his speech, is less about spelling bees and more about the notion of religious quest and the relationship of the fragmentary ways that we construct reality to the longings we have to make a fully consistent and powerful connection with the divine. The father in the movie (played by Richard Gere) is a professor of religious studies who has spent a lot of time mining the work of the 13th century Spanish Jewish Kabbalist Abraham Abulafia. The connection the movie tries to make between Abulafia's theory of the "magic" of letters and the daughter's ability to spell well is quite tenuous, but it permits us to open a brief window into the life of this medieval scholar. Here is a helpful encyclopedia article on Abraham.
Though much could be said about Abraham, the most significant thing for our purposes was his view that the language of Scripture was magical. The letters of the text could be converted to numerical representation (this is known as gematria or numerology) and then the resulting numbers could be analyzed for their meaning. In the words of the encyclopedia article:
"Letters of the alphabet, numerals, vowel-points, all became symbols of existence to him, and their combinations and permutations, supplementing and explaining one another, possessed for him an illumining power most effectively to be disclosed in a deeper study of the divine names, and especially of the consonants of the Tetragrammaton. With such auxiliaries, and with the observance of certain rites and ascetic practises, men, he says, may attain to the highest aim of existence and become prophets; not in order to work miracles and signs, but to reach the highest degree of perception and be able to penetrate intuitively into the inscrutable nature of the Deity, the riddles of creation..."
Thus, both Hazm and Abraham Abulafia were focused on or even obsessed with sacred Text and the way that reading it could connect one to the divine. For the Kabbalist, or medieval Jewish mystic, the purpose of this number-oriented reading was to merge the soul with God, while the Muslim thinker wanted to harmonize Quranic and other Islamic texts for a synthesis of all religious knowledge.
Manuel II Palaeologus--14th-15th Century
It was the reference to this Byzantine Emperor which took the Pope down a very rocky road. The Pope referred to a book attributed to Manuel II describing how a Christian and Muslim scholar engaged in dialogue about the truth of each of their religion. But after I dealt with that issue in these essays, I decided to do some work on Manuel II. Of course this brought me smack into the last days of the Byzantine Empire, which eventually fell to the Turks in 1453. In fact, Manuel was Emperor from 1391-1425, and a siege of Constantinople was taking place during the first decade of his reign. What I didn't know was that he left Constantinople in the mid-1390s to travel to Europe in a vain attempt, as it turned out, to secure troops and support against the Turks. I also learned that what actually "lifted" the siege in 1402 was not a decisive victory by the weakened Byzantines but rather the Mongols' coming in the back door from the East and defeating the Turks at Ankara in 1402. For the next two decades Manuel was on friendly terms with the succeeding Turkish ruler Mehmed I (1402-1421). I also learned some interesting historical facts--that during this Turkish weakness or "interregnum," the Byzantines managed to recapture and rule Thessalonica and, more important, enlarged their terriory in what was called the Despotate of Morea (in the Peloponnesus).
All of these facts are "irrelvant" in many ways to living of life in the modern world. We are pressed on every side by the tasks that must be done, and we have little time to delve into far-flung subjects like this, especially if it is difficult to make immediate connection with these people from other times and places. Yet, the allure of wanting to "put it all together" or to understand what others were longing to explain, about God or a sacred text or even about the threat of an enemy, can lift us out of our captivity to the present as the only "legitimate" form of investigation. I can't think of an example where broadening your intellectual horizons actually hurts you.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long