Tuesday, July 12, 2011


‘Widsith spoke, unlocked his wordhoard ...’. Travel and knowledge come together in a very different way from that found in Masudi’s work in the Anglo-Saxon poem known as Widsith (‘wide-traveller’). Widsith is simultaneously travelogue, ethnographic catalogue, and an argument for the scop’s importance to society. ‘Widsith’ himself, and some of the groups ‘he’ mentions, are evident fictions, and quite scholarly ones at that. An early date for the poem was once more widely accepted than it is now. Relatively recently John Niles (Old English Heroic Poems and the Social Life of Texts, Brepols, 2007) has made a strong case for it being seen as a product of a tenth-century cultural context, a reading that also serves to move its date of composition nearer the date of the manuscript in which it survives, the Exeter Book. Coincidentally, this also serves to render the poem contemporary with Masudi’s Meadows, the subject of the previous post. 
 For all the excellent recent work on the poem, R.W. Chamber’s Widsith, a Study in Old English Heroic Legend (Cambridge, 1912) remains the starting point. Of it, C.J. Sisson writes, in his  PBA obituary of Chambers: “His first published book under his own name was his well-known and fundamental study of Widsith, which appeared in 1912. Chamber’s text and commentary ... and his treatment in this volume of old Germanic heroic poetry and saga in general, established his reputation at once, and gave new life to Anglo-Saxon studies in England... .” ‘Raymond Wilson Chambers, 1874-1942’, Proceedings of the British Academy 30 (1944). 
R.W. Chambers, Widsith, a Study in Old English Heroic Legend (Cambridge, 1912)

Al -Masudi, The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems

"The other major work on the history of the Abbasids was Masudi’s Meadows of Gold. This is a general history of the Islamic world covering much the same ground as Tabari’s History, but it is many ways more polished and literary production. It combines historical narrative with engaging stories about court life and culture. In a way, its more literary style makes it less vivid than the cruder verbatim narratives that Tabari gives us and, on occasion, Masudi's narratives seem to reflect the perceptions of his own time rather than those of the earlier Abbasid period. But Masudi is still a great read.” Hugh Kennedy, When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: the Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty (New York, 2006), p. xxii.

Unlike his contemporary Tabari, Masudi hasn’t been particularly well served by Anglophone translations. As a consequence he’s less well known, let alone less read, by those whose primary interests lie in the Latin West. Born in Baghdad around 280/893 Masudi also studied there, and seems to have been well connected with many members of the city’s literary elite. ‘It would be tedious’, wrote Charles Pellat in his entry for Masudi in the Encyclopedia of Islam (second edition), ‘to list the personalities with whom he associated in the course of his career’. Like several other Islamic historians travel for Masudi was as important as static study. (Such scholarly - rather than strictly devotional or professionally opportunistic - travel seems strikingly absent from the practices of his Latin contemporaries.) Masudi travels included visits to Persia, India, Armenia, and Egypt, where he died in Fustat in 345/956. This knowledge of place and past gained by first-hand experience and 'local knowledge’ was balanced by extensive reading, including translations from Greek, Latin, and Pahlavi. He published his first ‘edition’ of the Muruj adh-dhahab wa ma'adin al-jawhar (The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems, to use its standard English title) in 332/943, revising it in 336/947, and 345/956.
The range of Masudi’s knowledge - past and contemporary - was vast. (So, too, it would seem, was his appetite for its increase.) He wrote in an informed way about the change of titulature during the reign of Nicephoras I (802-11), and had a powerful interest in people and polities beyond the Islamic world, including the Franks and the Lombards. In the case of the former Masudi included a (wildly) compressed list of Frankish rulers, moving from Clovis to Charlemagne in eight generations of an apparently single family (!). He knew something of the civil wars that followed Charlemagne’s death, and the threat they posed to political stability, as well as Odo’s struggles with the Vikings at the ninth-century’s close.  As he wrote - perhaps in Fustat - Masudi knew also that the Franks’ current ruler was Louis IV (r. 920 - 954). Masudi’s knowledge of the Frankish past rested upon a list of rulers he had read in Fustat in a book originally intended for al-Hakam, Caliph of Cordoba (349/961-365/976 ), and written in 328/939 by Godmar, Bishop of Gerona (943-951/2). To quote Bernard Lewis: ‘The interest of the passage however, does not lie in the actual list of names, teeming as it does with corruptions, errors, and omissions. Its importance lies in its mere existence’. (Lewis, Muslim Discovery, p. 142). Remarkably, at the same time he could also recount something of the ‘Huáng Cháo Revolution’ of the 870s that was to be instrumental in the eventual collapse of Tang authority. (Masudi’s information on Chinese politics seems to have come from reports conveyed by Arab merchants.) His achievements put the works of contemporary Latin historians such as Richer and Regino into perspective.

First published in 1283 the first English translation was begun by the Austrian scholar Aloys Sprenger’s in 1841. Only one volume was published.  A full French translation was produced between 1861 and 1877 by Barbier de Meynard and Pavet de Courteille. This was revised in 1913-30, and again, by Pellat (1966-74, text; 1962 - 71, translation). Masudi’s sections on the Abbasids was retranslated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone and published as The Meadows of Gold, The Abbasids, (London and New York, 1989). Finally, in 2007 Penguin issued From the Meadows of Gold in the series Great Journeys, a compact paperback compendium of Masudi’s ‘travel writing’. 

A. Sprenger’s Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems  (London, 1841)

C. Barbier De Meynard and Pavet de Courteille’s Prairies d'or (Paris London, 1861-77), volumes 123456789

Further discussion: C. Pellat,  Encylopedia of Islam (2nd ed.), VII, p. 784, col. 1 (used here); A. Shboul, Al-Masʿūdī and his world. A. Muslim Humanist and his Interest in Non-Muslims (London 1979). (Shboul's chapter on the Byzantines, incidentally, is available online at De Re Militari's website here. Ann Christys, Christians in Al-Andalus, 711-1000 (Richmond, 2002), addresses Masudi's source for the Frankish kings at pp. 140-2.