Not So, Catlos.

As I said back in 2013, if you’re going to write an error-riddled book on Middle Eastern history, Robert Irwin is the last person you want reviewing it; Brian A. Catlos’s Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain doesn’t sound like a bad book in general, but Irwin has to school him on some literary history in his review (NYRB, March 21, 2019):

As the caliphate fell apart, what was left of Muslim Spain was divided among overlords who were known collectively as taifa kings, or party kings. Even in their own time they did not enjoy a good reputation. According to one contemporary poet, they were “like pussycats, who puffing themselves up, / Imagine they can roar like lions.” Catlos’s no less damning verdict is that the kings were “strongmen who were not even strong.” Yet the eleventh and twelfth centuries were a great age for philosophy, theology, and literature, and the political and military decline of the taifa principalities did not entail a cultural decline. Catlos’s account of Andalusian literary culture in this period is brisk and less surefooted than his coverage of politics and society. About the increasing influence of Arabic literature on the development of European literature from the thirteenth century onward, he writes:

Now Arabo-Islamic epics, romances and folktales—many of South Asian or Persian origin—were translated, adapted, or otherwise made their way into popular literature. These included the Kalila wa-dimna, a collection of fables; Sindibad, or Sendebar, the tales of Sinbad the Sailor; the epic of Alexander the Great; and tales from The Thousand and One Nights. Popular and didactic literature of the era, such as Ramon Llull’s Book of the Beasts (1280s) and The Tales of Count Lucanor, written in 1335 by Don Juan Manuel, a nephew of Alfonso X, were strongly influenced by these texts. In fact, Arabic literature transformed European fiction, both through the borrowing of narratives and through the appropriation of the literary device of the maqamat, or frame tale, the story-within-a-story—the same device used by Boccaccio in his Decameron and by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales.

Only some of this is correct. Kalila wa-dimna, a collection of animal fables, did circulate in medieval Spain, and some of its stories were recycled in the Latin Disciplina Clericalis, a collection of Eastern fables put together in the early twelfth century by Petrus Alfonso, a Spanish Jew who had converted to Christianity. But Sindibad (or Sendebar) doesn’t contain the tales of Sinbad the Sailor. It is a collection of moral tales, probably of Persian origin, in which a queen tells stories with the aim of securing the execution of the prince who has rebuffed her advances, but a wise vizier tells other stories designed to save the youth’s life. The craft and malice of women is a leading theme of the stories told by the rival narrators. A version of this story cycle certainly circulated in Spain in Latin and in Spanish, and an Arabic version was eventually added to printed versions of The Thousand and One Nights. There seems to be no evidence that the stories of Sinbad the Sailor circulated in medieval Spain. (At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Antoine Galland arbitrarily added the Sinbad stories to his French translation of The Thousand and One Nights, the first ever available in Europe.)

Although stories from what eventually would form the corpus of The Thousand and One Nights, such as “The Ebony Horse” and “Abu’l-Husn and His Slave-girl Tawaddud,” did circulate in medieval Spain, they appear to have done so as freestanding stories, and they do not appear in the oldest substantially surviving manuscript of the Nights, dating from the fifteenth century (which was the one Galland translated into French). Consequently the wonderfully intricate and playful Chinese-box structure of the original core stories of the Nights was probably quite unknown in medieval Spain. If one is looking for precedents for the framing of stories within a story, as found in Boccaccio or Chaucer, they may be discovered in Homer, Ovid, or Petronius’s Satyricon.

Maqamat (plural; maqama singular) does not mean “frame tale.” It translates literally as “standings” and refers to a peculiarly Arabic genre of fiction that features a series of performances by a wily and highly eloquent rogue in disguise who seeks to use rhetoric and literary allusion to scrounge money from his audience before making his escape. The best examples of the genre offer serious lessons in Koranic exegesis, grammar, lexicography, and rhetoric. Although the maqama genre cannot really be seen as an ancestor of the European frame tale, its resemblance to the Spanish picaresque novel as it evolved in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has often been noted by literary scholars.

We discussed Galland and the Nights here and here, and maqamat here. Also, “factional kings” would be more immediately intelligible than “party kings,” although I’m sure they did love to party.


  1. January First-of-May says

    Also, “factional kings” would be more immediately intelligible than “party kings,” although I’m sure they did love to party.

    I agree! I’m not actually aware of this meaning of “party”, if it even exists outside this context; it sounds like someone tried to form an adjective from the noun “part” but wasn’t actually very good at English.

    I think I’ve seen the term “petty kings” (and/or “petty kingdoms”) used for similarly splintered situations elsewhere (e.g. in Ireland), and googling tells me that it’s sometimes used for the Spanish setup as well.

  2. Ah, so Ostap Bender antics is a maqama story. Didn’t recognize it from the previous thread.

  3. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I feel like there’s been a discussion before about people who have lots of whatevers and one King, and people (like Ireland and Narnia) who have lots of kings and one High King.

    ‘Party’ – and even factional – suggests politics to me, as if you would have two different kings with different ideas in the same area. But it seems to be a term of art at least to some extent – wikipedia cites ‘D. J. Wasserstein (1985), The Rise and Fall of the Party-kings: Politics and Society in Islamic Spain, 1002–1086, Princeton University Press.’

  4. But it seems to be a term of art at least to some extent

    Yes, which makes this classic nerdview — you’re so used to seeing a term in specialized academic work you forget that the unwashed masses will not know what you’re talking about. (Cf. also “echelon.”)

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    This sense of “party” seems perfectly normal to me (though I agree that “factional” would have been a better choice in context.)

    Mind you, I may be a politics nerd. One doesn’t always recognise these things in oneself.

  6. Party kings make me first think of fun parties (celebrations) and then of political parties. So I was imagining different political parties in the same country, each lead by a king, fighting for power, sometimes allied, sometimes not. Maybe even a civil war kind of situation. What is actually meant by “party kings” seems quite different from that (aside from the fighting for power part, I guess).

  7. Note that both of the Roman novels that have survived (or mostly survived) to modern times, the Satyricon which was already mentioned, and The Golden Ass, feature frame stories that are frequently interrupted to insert folktales. The insertions can be highly variable in length, from a couple of paragraphs to multiple chapters. These similarities are in spite of the otherwise very different styles, tones, and genre conventions of the two books, which suggests that this was a standard format for Greco-Roman* works of fiction.

    And speaking of petty factional kings, I happened to read “The Eight Billion” by Richard Wilson yesterday. (Wilson, though largely forgotten today, was a significant figure in science fiction in mid-twentieth century and won a Nebula award; “The Eight Billion” was nominated for another Nebula in 1965.) The story explains, among other things, which in the far future, Manhattan will have a king, but Brooklyn only has a prince.

    * The Golden Ass takes place in Greece and is distinctively a tale of the Roman Empire away from the Latin heartland. The author, Apuleius, was a Romanized North African who studied in Carthage, Athens, and more briefly Rome; he was also a strong advocate for religious syncretism, which is a major theme in The Golden Ass itself.

  8. Jen in Edinburgh says

    All I know about echelons is that they are upper.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    The name Catlos looks unusual. I suppose it might be asciified from Čatloš, as inČatloš

    If I had any cool diacritics, I’d hang on to them, though.

  10. “Party Kings” made me think of “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” by Oscar Hijuelos. A very entertaining novel about Cuban exiles in New York in the 1950s. There’s a distant connection to medieval Spain, I suppose.

  11. Csatlos is a Hungarian surname, the word means “henchman, retainer”.

    Pronounced Chatlosh.

  12. Per WP and Wikt, party kings is a calque of Arabic mulūk al-ṭawāʾif, where ṭā’ifa originally meant ‘band’. So originally these were the chieftains of nomadic bands, and when they became petty territorial rulers the name stuck: meanwhile the original noun partly shifted to also mean ‘faction, party’.

  13. ṭā’ifa

    Which can also be seen in Chechen as тайпа, as in тайпа а, тукхам а до:цуш (taipa a, tuqam a dōtsush) ‘без роду, без племени (without kith or kin)’

  14. JC beat me to my comment about the calque, so i’ll just say that the period of the “ta’ifa kings” (which should also be thought of as including the statelets under christian rule – just as petty, and just as party inclined) might make more sense in english with a much less literal gloss – something like “Warring States Period”, perhaps…

    i remember María Rosa Menocal having proposed an andalusi lineage for the european frame-story structure, but can’t remember the details (petrus alfonsi / moses sefardi may have figured into it, but i wouldn’t swear to that). i’m inclined to trust her on trends and themes like that (though i know some don’t) – i’m sure my view’s partly colored by my good experiences as her student (despite her distinctly reactionary politics outside her scholarship).

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    the word means “henchman, retainer”

    My followers are retainers.
    Your followers are henchmen.
    His followers are thugs.

  16. something like “Warring States Period”, perhaps

    Excellent suggestion! And you’re lucky to have studied with Menocal.

  17. @Jen: old New Yorker cartoon that won’t come up on Google: Two well-upholstered fellows in suits sipping cocktails, and one says: “There are no echelons like the upper echelons.”

  18. Incidentally, checking a couple of YouTube videos has convinced me that Catlos’s name has been thoroughly anglicized; it’s apparently CAT-lohss.

  19. I don’t think Band Kings are any more clear. The band thing reminds me of the detective story “The Speckled Band”. That band turned out to be quite different and not so fun…

    The Warring States I can understand easily, perhaps because I heard it used about Chinese history. Is Warring States Period used for other places too?

  20. David Eddyshaw says
  21. Russian historiography called similar period in Russian history “period of feudal partition”.

    Russia at the time literally consisted of hundreds of little Luxemburgs and Liechtensteins. And they sometimes fought each other, yes.

    Political map of the upper Oka region in 15th century. Each town with name underlined was capital of an independent (well, semi-independent) state ruled by a prince.

    We talked about princes in Russian classical literature. They all were descendants of independent rulers of such mini-states. Look up for example a small country size of Monaco around town of Volkona. It was ruled by the Princes Volkonsky.

    Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (slightly misspelled to avoid problems) is one of the main characters in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”. That’s what his sovereign ancestors ruled three centuries before Napoleon.

  22. Maybe “warband kings” would be a better term.

  23. Antoine Galland arbitrarily added the Sinbad stories

    A bit dismissive. “Galland added the Sinbad stories” would be more accurate.

    I hope everyone knows the story of Hanna Diyab?

  24. They all were descendants of independent rulers of such mini-states.

    Prince Linguist Trubetskoy once noted that being a prince in Vienna is like coming в Тулу со своим самоваром.
    Coming to Tula with your own samovar, that is. A Russian idiom. Tula is where they are made.

  25. Prince Linguist Trubetskoy

    Principality of his ancestors is also on this map. Centered on town of Trubetsk (Trubchesk), to the south of Briansk.

    And close to the top, there is the town of Obolensk, home of Princes Obolensky, another very famous family scattered all over the world now.

  26. I remember John Updike being interviewed on Fresh Air some years ago, when he claimed that his use of a set of stories told within a framing story was inspired by Vetala Panchavimshati, which he referred to as something like “tales told by a vampire”. He could have just as easily said The Canterbury Tales or The Arabian Nights.

    He also left out the best part, which is that Vetala Panchavimshati ends up with I’m My Own Grandpa.

  27. If Catlos had been Anglicized, it’d rhyme with moss. If it rhymes with dose then it’s been Americanized.

  28. Sorry, you’re quite right, of course. It’s my Yank imperialist/hegemonic nature showing again!

  29. David Marjanović says

    another very famous family

    All I care about is Serpukhov. ^_^

    (It’s right on top of Visé in Belgium, which is on top of Tournai, also in Belgium.)

  30. And below Bashkiria; coincidentally, I’m now reading Andrei Bitov’s Колесо. Записки новичка, which is about a trip to Ufa, the capital of Bashkiria.

  31. All I care about is Serpukhov

    This needs to be spelled out: Pennsylvanian is subdivided into Bashkirian, Moscovian, Kasimovian, and Gzhelian. Get a grip, people! Can you first compose paleontological charts and then drink.

  32. The Element Song? Humph. Let Tom Lehrer write The Geological Age Song.

  33. >> Bashkirian, Moscovian, Kasimovian, and Gzhelian.

    Who invited the Armenians?

  34. January First-of-May says

    Vetala Panchavimshati

    Sometime around 2010, Dmitry Gayduk published a very free translation of it into Russian under the title Индийский покойник (not sure how to render this in English). I had the chance to listen to it not long after that, and it certainly has the style of an Indian story – to the extent where I was extremely disappointed that the parts I most enjoyed mostly weren’t authentic to the original.

    I’m not actually sure how far back the framing-story idea goes, but as long as we’re not looking for multiple framings, Utnapishtim’s flood narrative neatly framed within the Epic of Gilgamesh would surely qualify. (I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s something even older.)

  35. Who invited the Armenians?

    In a recursive win, “Armenian” itself is Armenian surname.

    A few more Armenian surnames: Mongolian, Persian, Cambodian, Australian, Canadian, Italian, etc…

  36. Why is Russian armyanskiy the adjective form of armeniya? Is the vowel change regular?

  37. PlasticPaddy says

    Maybe armen(i)janin > armnjanin > armjanin? The adjective would then conform or develop in tandem.

  38. I suppose, like frantsuzskiy<Franzose it comes from the name of people, armyane.

    Which in turn is like afinyane, egiptyane, samaryane/samarityane, etc.

    Armenia was (un)fortunate to have -yen (where y means: when producing /m/ your jaw is not dropped as low as it would for -ma-, lips are relaxed and the tongue is already in the position for a fronted sound – which, in turn, has to shift towards e/i too unless you want to produce a diphtong)

  39. January First-of-May says

    I suspect it was essentially PlasticPaddy’s version: *armenyanin > armyanin, though probably by haplo(lo)gy rather than contraction.

  40. Укор сей слышим мы нередко:
    “Ты трус, ты раб, ты армянин!” –

  41. And Rusyn must simply be singulative of Rus, and thus means “a Rus”.

Speak Your Mind