History Weekend Walks: Alhambra, Granada, Spain

As we’d promised at the end of our earlier post in the series, we’ll be “walking” around the Islamic part of Alhambra’s palatial complex, which is located in Granda, Spain.

Having started as a small fortress that dates back to the times when southern Spain was part of the Roman Empire, Alhambra (arabic for “red one”) flourished predominantly during the late Nasrid dynasty and during the Reconquista. Even though some parts of the original Islamic palace have been either altered by the Spanish monarchs or destroyed during the Napoleonic wars and by the 1821 earthquake, it is still possible to witness some of the interchange between Islamic and European cultures in the architecture of the palace.

Here is a quick introductory video about Alhambra, filmed by the BBC.

Although the modern entrance to the palace doesn’t correspond with its historical counterpart, the overall touristy routes inside allow one to wonder around the complex in chronological order and witness for themselves how the fortress developed. Once one enters the surrounding areas inside the complex, it is possible to see various parts of the palace. For example, one can see the very early foundations of the fortress by the entrance.

These are the Roman and early Mediaeval foundations of the fortress. This is the location from which Isabella of Castille and her husband Ferdinand of Aragon signalled to the outside world that the Reconquista has finished in 1492, following their conquest of Granada Caliphate. One has to climb up to the Torre de Vela (the Watch Tower) to take panoramic photos like this one.

When inside the main palace, it is possible to wander around it as there is no specifically designated route. We decided to start our route from the inside and then walk outside. Given that the modern tourist route attempts to tell the story of the palace in chronological order, the visitors are recommended to begin with the Nasarid section.

This is the ‘official’ entrance into the Nazarinid section of the palace.

Through Sala de la Barca (Hall of the Boat), we went straight to the Hall of the Ambassadors (Salón de los Embajadores), which is coincidentally one of the largest rooms in the palace. The room is decorated in a typical Islamic style, just as the Hall of the Ambassadors in Seville.


The Hall of the Ambassadors had been fully developed in the Nasrid period, in the 14th century, and remained largely untouched by the Castilian and SPanish monarchs. The room is decorated in a typical Islamic style, with the ceiling decorations acting as a representation of the Seven Heavens of the Islamic Paradise.

To give you more context about the Islamic architecture and the concepts it attempts to convey or to depict, here is a playlist compiled by University of Nottingham about Islamic theology.

As the visitors walk deeper into the palace, they are able to witness more and more delicate carvings, which unify the complex stylistically. As an example, let us take a look at two most famous spaces of the palace- Sala de Dos Hermanas and Patio de Los Leones.

The Sala de Dos Hermanas (Hall of the Two Sisters), is a large room paved with white marble and is most famous for the intricate stalactite work on its dome. The origins of the room’s name is unclear. Some say that it’s named like this because of the two large marble slabs on the floor. Others point to a small city, which bears the same name as the room, and theorise that this room was either named after the city or re-named as means to commemorate the events of the Reconquista in 13th century. Sources remain silent on which interpretation is true.

The Palacio de los Leones (Palace of the Lions), is considered by specialists as a separate section of the overall Nasrid palatial complex. The section derives its name from a fountain, which is supported by several lion statues made from marble. The section and the fountain were commissioned by Muhammad V in the 14th century, when the Caliphate of Granada was at the height of its political power.

SOURCE TIME: Here is an architectural plan of the Palace of Lions, a video of the court near the Palace of Lions and a poem about the Lion Fountain. Look carefully at the plan (the labels, if read clockwise say: the watch tower; the Hall of the Kings; the Hall of the Abencerrajes; the Hall of Macarabes; the Hall of Two Sisters), then at the video and then read the poem. What does the architectural structure of the palace can tell you about the role of a ruler and their relationship to those below in Islamic Granada? Why do you think so? Focus your thinking on the positions of the rooms and the way they are placed in relation to the Hall of the Kings and use the poem to back your conclusions up.
The author of this poem is anonymous, but the historians theorise that it was either Ibn al-Jatib (1313-1375) or Ibn Zamrak (1333-1393). It was written at the time when the Fountain was constructed. (cc:https://www.alhambradegranada.org/en/info/epigraphicpoems.asp)

Obviously, we cannot leave the readers without an honorary photo- dump of the garden that surrounds Alhambra!

If you’re interested in exploring the topic further…

  • If you’re interested in reading more about the Moorish Spain, may we recommend Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain. It contains a very readable style and introduces core concepts that are related to this period in Iberian history.
  • If you’re interested in finding out about the architectural style of Moorish Spain, may we suggest either Moorish Architecture by Marianne Barrucand or Felix Arnold’s Islamic Palace Architecture in the Western Mediterranean: A History.
  • If you’re interested in a more literary side of the Alhambra, may we recommend some authors who wrote about Alhambra and Granada.
  • If you would like to read some Arabic authors and poets, then Ibn al-Jatib and Ibn Zamrak are your go to writers(unfortunately, we were unable to dig out many sources in English, but there are plenty of more in Spanish- a link you could see below)
  • If you would like to read some sources in English, Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra is a good place to start. The book is quite short and contains engaging details about Alhambra. Please note that Irving did not have any training as a historians and was writing this collection of essays for general readers as a hobby, so take his stories with a pinch of salt!
  • If you’re interested in finding out more about Alhambra on its own, take a look at this documentary produced by National Geographic.
  • And as usual, we leave you with some music!
Have a lovely Saturday!

An announcement 12/12/2020

Our team is semi-back, everyone! Given that both of us were busy with university related tasks and general holiday preparations we’ve been updating at a much slower pace than in the previous months. However, now we’re are slightly more free and we’ll be updating once every two days.

We will be unpacking some emails that has been sent to us during the period in which we were absent and we will be responding to them shortly.

Thank you very much for all of the support that had been shown to us since our project was launched since July 2020! It genuinely means a lot to us.

Historians In Conversation: Historical Objects or a Mini-Pushkin Case-study

On this chilly Sunday day a little figurine on a bookshelf looked at us. We looked back at the figurine. And we thought- we should really talk about how various objects can be useful for historians to understand past societies as well as some modern issues. In this post of Historians In Conversations we’ll be discussing how historians tend to treat physical evidence, specifically statues and figurines, and propose some ideas of our own about the process. Our ‘example’ object will be a mass-produced Soviet statuette of Imperial poet A.S. Pushkin, which stands on one of our library shelves.

Here’s our little inspiration: a mass-produced Soviet figurine of young Pushkin.

Think like a Historian:

What can statues tell us about a society? Why do you think so?

‘Objects’ and the ‘historical’

Technically, any object which is able to tell us about the past society can be considered ‘historical’. This is because historians can use an object to reconstruct some parts of a society and therefore understand it better. For instance, a historian can look at a statue and consider the way the contemporary industries functioned. For example, in the case of mini-Pushkin, the statuette can help us to potentially understand the way the ceramic and glass industries functioned in the Soviet Union. This specific form was mass- produced, which allows us to conclude that the Soviet Union had a large ceramic industry as there would be no point in mass-producing so many little statuettes if there was no demand for it from contemporary population. Furthermore, a historian can decipher more abstract attitudes, such as power relations. Indeed, it would be ineffective for a State to waste resources on mass-production of little statutes had there not been a valuable enough reason to do so. As a result, it is possible to suggest that there was a wider reason for why such statuettes were produced. We think that the production was probably linked to some form of social instability, in order to make a society focus on its positive aspects rather than the negative ones. Consequently, any object from the past which helps a historian to understand the contemporary society better can be considered ‘historical’.

Our evidence for why we think this statue was mass-produced. As you can see from the photo the bottom of the statue has the official blue stamps (some specialist websites say that these are ‘LFZ’ marks associated with the Leningrad Lomonosov Porcelain Factory). Furthermore, the hollow section together with the round sections could point to the statue being mass-produced. This is because such a structure is usually created from a mould and it’s unlikely that a small mould would’ve been created for a one-off event.

Images and Icons

However, there is another layer in how historians use objects when interpreting the past societies. Statues, in their celebration of an individual, are used to understand what the contemporary society found valuable, rather than actions of an individual. For example, in the case of the mini-Pushkin, historians could theorise that one of the social values of Soviet Russia was the overall neat presentability in an education setting. Indeed, judging by the overall appearance and comparing it to another statuette we’d concluded that our statuette presents Pushkin in a possible education setting. The socio-cultural value of ‘neatness’ in such settings could be seen in Pushkin’s well-ironed clothes and it being tucked in as well as seemingly readable handwriting. As a result, this depiction of Pushkin probably point to the values of USSR rather than to the ones that had existed in the Russian Empire.

Historical objects and collective history

This brings us to yet another layer in how historians use objects when interpreting the past societies. This layer is much more abstract and is related to the way how the contemporary society related to its collective history. Our mini-Pushkin is an interesting example. The ‘real’ A.S. Pushkin was a controversial figure in his lifetime. The man got bad press for general debauchery behaviour, like participating in illegal duels, being constantly in debt, and undermining the power of the Crown by having links with the Decembrists. However, any hint of such behaviour doesn’t emerge from our statuette. In fact, our mini-Pushkin, seems more of a diligent, perhaps slightly dreamy, youngster; rather than a controversial figure. As a result, it is possible to suggest that following the Revolution of 1917, the interpretation of Pushkin’s place in history got a ‘rebranding’ from an elite aristocratic poet to a dreamy man of the people. This is evident in our statuette (see photo below). Statues, therefore, help historians to understand how a society related to its past. Consequently, for a statue to be ‘historical’ it has to be made in the past and point to an idea of how society saw an individual which the statue portrayed.

Close up of Pushkin’s face.

Think like a Historian:

Do you think that statues show a ‘true’ version of an individual? Why do you think so? Can you give any examples from today?

By means of a conclusion

As mentioned above, such ‘rebrandings’ of influential individuals happen all the time in every society one way or another. Pushkin is definitely not an individual case in this process. These ‘rebrandings’ don’t take away much from our understanding of history and they most certainly don’t “erase” history. In fact, the various interpretations that arise as a result of the discussions around the statues and the individuals they depict aids everyone, historians included, to understand the collective memory of the society we live in.

To explore this topic further…

  • If you’re interested in reading about the ongoing debate about the place of statues in cultural memory, a good place to start is David Olusoga’s Guardian article that was written in response to this year’s toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol.
  • If you’re interested in how culture, history and various objects interlink with each other, may we suggest you take a listen to BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects podcast.
  • If you’re interested in the historical figure of Pushkin, a good place to start is T.J. Binyon’s Pushkin:A Biography. Be aware that the book is fairly weighty and is not a bedside-read type book.
  • As a way to wrap up this Sunday post, we recommend for you to give a listen to BBC’s In Our Time podcast discussion of Eugene Onegin.
Enjoy and have a restful Sunday! ☺️

Historical Weekend Walks: Alcázar of Seville (al-Qasr al-Muriq), Seville, Spain

Lockdowns are frustrating. Especially in the autumn/winter season because festive spirit isn’t quite there yet and the weather is, quite frankly, bad. In fact, Lockdowns are a constantly ongoing greyish mess. To dilute your Lockdown blues, we’re introducing a series of posts that will be produced on weekly basis, ‘Historical Weekend Walks’. In these posts we’ll be choosing one historical location and we’ll be giving you a mini-tour of the place by using our very own photos(which were not made in 2020)!

Our first ‘walk’ will take place in Alcázar of Seville, or as it’s known in Arabic, al-Qasr al-Muriq.

Although the location of this royal residence could be traced back to 8th century, the Alcazar we see now was largely build during 11-12th centuries during the Mutamid and Almohad periods. Coincidentally, these periods corresponded with a rise in socio-cultural developments and permitted the location to become one of the key non-Christian centres of arts and learning on the Iberian Peninsula.

In our day and age tourists enter Alcazar through the Lion’s Gate, which is one of the side entrances to the palace.

SOURCE TIME: (and you thought that we’ll miss out the opportunity to introduce you to some literary sources!) This is a poem by a famous Islamic poet Ibn Zaydun. Although written about another palace, what can you find out about Islamic attitudes towards either palaces or an elite culture within the palaces? Think about how the construction of the poem helps you to understand what the palace culture was like. (cc: https://www.islamicspain.tv/arts-and-literature/poems-from-al-andalus/)

After entering the palace and passing through an ancient arch you end up in mini-square, called the Patio de la Montería (or the Court of the Hunters), through which you can proceed in different paths to explore the palace. As you can see from the photos below, the overall architectural style of the Alcazar combines a lot of differing architectural influences. Indeed, the traditional ‘flat’ columns cohabitate with the Islamic-style carvings, thus uniting the aesthetic of the façade. Such a somewhat patchy style occurred probably due to King Peter I and his architects attempting to incorporate traditional European styles into Islamic building in 1360s.

The Patio de la Montería. View from the entrance to it.

After leaving the Patio, you can wonder off into different directions. We decided to follow the steps of various diplomats and slip into the Ambassador’s Room.

Architectural details of the entrance to the Ambassador’s Room

The Hall of the Ambassadors, was build by Seville craftsman Diego Ruiz in 1389, following the orders of Pedro I. The room mainly uses a Moorish style as the bottom half of the room is rich with Islamic geometric patterns. However, the top half is decorated by methods that are traditional to Western architecture. This could be seen most clearly in the predominant usage of golden decorations as well as portraits of various kings in a usual high Renaissance or Baroque style.

To give you a better idea about the size and layout of the room, here is a very short clip of the room.

When we left the Hall of the Ambassadors we popped into the Patio de las Muñecas (Patio of the Dolls). Decorated by delicate carvings and plaster works that seem typical to the Iberian Peninsula, the top section of the carvings in the balcony-like structure, were not part of the original ensemble as they were only added to the room in 19th century for Queen Isabel II. The lower half, however is the original work.

Think like a Historian:

Is it generally a useful idea for a figure in power to show off their lavish lifestyle if the country is going through a period of political and economic instability? Why do you think so? Can you come up with some historical examples?

Having cooled down within the walls of the palace we decided to face the blazes of the Spanish sun and we went on to explore the outside sections of the palace.

Located near the Patio of the Dolls, we found the Patio of the Maidens. This patio derives its name from an old local legend that mentions that this pond was originally filled with the tears of 100 Christian virgins as means to pay tribute to the Moors.

Think like a Historian:

Can local legends be used by historians to reconstruct a society that they’re studying? Why do you think so?

From this patio you can sneak into the Gothic Palace that was mostly developed by Charles V in 16th century and by Bourbon monarchs in 18th century. As you can see the architectural style is very different to the other parts of the palace.

Although not strictly related to the Alcazar, this video discusses the start of the Spanish Civil War. This video may be helpful for you to answer some of the questions which this post asks.

The key location to visit in this part of the palace are the Salones de Carlo V (Halls of Charles V) which consist of the Grand Hall and the Hall of the Tapestries. Whilst the Grand Hall, which was constructed in 1929 for the Ibero-American exposition in 1929 during the reign of Alfonso XIII, may not be as interesting for some, a location that may be more intriguing is the Hall of the Tapestries.

The Hall of the Tapestries was build during the 18th century. The construction was begun under Charles V, with an overall aim to celebrate his own military victories. However, by 18th century these tapestries began to wear down and needed to be fixed. As a result, the ‘updated’ tapestries now cohabitate with the ‘new’ 18th century tapestries that were made by the Royal Tapestry Factory in Spain following the commission of the Spanish Crown.

Think like a Historian:

Why do you think different tapestries were chosen to be put into the same room to celebrate Charles V’s victories? Think about the way how some rulers chose to justify their reign throughout historical continuity.

If you’re interested to explore the topic further…

  • If you’re interested in reading more about the Moorish Spain, may we recommend Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain. It contains a very readable style and introduces core concepts that are related to this period in Iberian history.
  • If you’re interested in finding out about the architectural style of Moorish Spain, may we suggest either Moorish Architecture by Marianne Barrucand or Felix Arnold’s Islamic Palace Architecture in the Western Mediterranean: A History.
  • Unfortunately we were unable to find any historical documentaries that contextualise Alcazar in Seville. However, what we did find were some historical music from the region!
Enjoy the music and see you next week when we will travel to yet another Moorish palace this time in Granada! ☺️

LGBTQ+ Histories: Italy in the Renaissance

On the morning of 9th April, 1476 an anonymous note appeared on the square near the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy. It read:

I notify you, Signori Officiali, concerning a true thing, namely that Jacopo Saltarelli… [who] dresses in black and is about 17 years old… has been a party to many wretched affairs and consents to please those persons who exact certain evil pleasures from him. And in this way he has… served several dozen people about whom I know a good deal, and here will name a few: Bartolomeo di Pasquino, goldsmith who lives in Vacchereccia. Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci, who lives with Andrea de Verrocchio. Baccino, a tailor, who lives by Or San Michele… Leonardo Tornabuoni, called il teri; dresses in black. These committed sodomy with said Jacopop, and this I testify before you.’

And as thus, this striking accusation that mentions Leonardo da Vinci can serve as a stepping point into the LGBTQ+ culture of Renaissance Italy; which will be discussed in this post.

Think like a Historian:

Do you think it is useful to base your understanding of a historical period on just one source?

Renaissance: A Brief Introduction

Traditional Historiography of the Italian Renaissance emphasises that this period emerged after the ‘Dark Ages’, when the majority of the knowledge of the ancients was lost or forgotten. It was a time of great cultural changes across Europe. One of the key features of the period which is highlighted by traditional Historiography is the re-discovery and consequently growing interest in ancient Greek and Roman thinkers, like Plato and Plutarch. Such changes are explained by some shifts from feudal-based to a more capitalist-based economies. The translated arguments, coupled with the gradual emergence of the printing press allowed the texts to be incorporated firstly into various cultures on the Italian peninsula and then spread to other European cultures European cultures via the trade routes. Consequently, traditional Historiography of the Renaissance implies to a large extent that Renaissance was a relatively new trend that came as a result of various socio-political and economic changes.

Yet, such an approach often side-steps the possibility that the Renaissance emerged from the Mediaeval monastic culture and its interaction with the scholars from the Islamic world. There is a possibility that the phenomena of the European Renaissance should be seen within the context of such events, like the Sack of Constantinople in 1453; whereby Byzantinian scholars brought over and translated the works of Aristotle. Such changes and arguments, thus, were added to the already existing knowledge of the classical authors, like Tacitus. Consequently, whilst traditional Historiography emphasises an idea that the Italian Renaissance resulted as a result of socio-economic changes within Europe, newer trends of Historiography emphasise that the Europe was constantly in a cultural dialogue with the Islamic world.

Here is a brief introductory video to what Renaissance was all about

Think like a Historian:

Should we pass judgement onto the society of the past for it being less progressive (or modern) than our own? Why do you think so?


Late 14th or early 15th century Italy, or Italian states, was a quite different place in terms of its approach to the treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals. Homosexuality, or as it was known then ‘sodomy’, was considered as a serious crime. The severity of punishments varied from region to region given the uneven distribution of power and influence of the Catholic Church, which was one of the key forces in dictating contemporary laws. For example, whilst sodomy was punishable by death in Bologna, in Tuscany the punishment was or castration and and Pisa it was paying fines. Certain cities, in order to fight homosexuality, even created special armed forces for that specific purpose, such as Venetian Signori di Notte (Lords of the Night). As a result, one can conclude that the Renaissance Italy was by no means a safe space for LGBTQ+ community, given relatively wide-spread prosecutions that took place.

This is a very good video about the development of the Roman Inquisition, the inexpectant Spanish Inquisition’s older sibling.

LGBTQ+ Cultures in Venice and Florence

However, despite this, two large homosexual communities became prominent in Venice and Florence. Such communities included men from all kinds of background, with the greatest fraction of evicted sodomites came from non-elite circles. The records tell of shoemakers, weavers, clothes dealers, butches and even clergy. The possible reasons for emergence of such communities remain unclear. Whilst the likeliest reason for the Venetian community emerging and growing was tied to relative passivity from the State in attempting to deal with what many religious figures saw as an issue and relative political stability, the Florentine reasons for the growth of homosexual community is a peculiar one.

As mentioned above, historians are not entirely clear why Florentine community grew. Florence, oppositely to Venice, was often politically unstable and was often shaken by class conflict. During the Medicean regency arrests involving sodomy went up at an rapidly increasing rate. There were so many convictions in 1432 that the fine of 100 florins was judged insufficient and in 1440 the tariff increased. This change proved to be counter- productive as the magistrates complained that the majority of the evicted “sodomites” were too poor to pay the new fine and thus the fine was lowered. However, the issue with the new fine was that it was so low that the income from it damaged the city’s economy. As the result of this, the fine was lowered once again to 10 florins in 1459. Yet, this trend was reversed with the rise of Girolamo Savonarola, who argued in his public sermons that the reign of the Antichrist had begun and to prevent people of Florence facing a Doomsday they should reject all of the socio-cultural developments of the Renaissance. Conclusively, the fines and prosecutions increased. Consequently, whilst it is not particularly clear why the Florentine homosexual community grew despite the constant shifts in prosecutions, it is possible to suggest that some wider socio-economic factors came into play; which yet remain to be uncovered.

Think like a Historian:

If you were researching a particular social group, where would you find the necessary primary sources?

Suggested further reading:

Women in History: Emily Dickinson

Sometimes when times are especially tough poetry becomes a somewhat of a morale booster and means of escaping the reality for a brief moment. So in the light of this idea, we’d decided to discuss the life and works of Emily Dickinson, a famous American woman- poet who had lived in the 19th century.

SOURCE TIME: This is one of the few contemporary photo of Emily Dickinson. Based on your knowledge about women of 1830s in either Europe or America, what can you tell either about Emily Dickinson or the value of a photograph. Think about how popular the photos were at the time.

Think like a Historian:

What do you think photographs can tell a historian about a specific period? Do they only tell about individuals on them?

“He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none”

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830, a second child to Edward and Emily Norcoss Dickinson. Emily’s father was a lawyer and served as a Treasurer of Amherst College. Little is known of Emily’s mother; only that she had received a good education and that she was prone to depressive episodes throughout her life, something which had probably left a mark on little Emily. Indeed, our protagonist wrote in a letter that she had “always ran Home to Awe [Austin- her older brother] when a child, if anything befell me. He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none”, thus demonstrating distance between herself and her mother. However, overall, Emily Dickinson had a happy childhood thanks to the warm relationships with her father and siblings.


In 1840 Emily and her sister Lavinia were enrolled together at the prestigious Amherst Academy, which emphasised the value of girls’ education. Emily was a diligent student who, according to the Academy’s principal Fiske, was “very bright” and “an excellent scholar, of exemplary deportment, faithful in all school duties“. Emily was particularly happy there given that he had found a group of likeminded people with whom she was able to share her ideas with. Dickinson was particularly interested in botany, which was influential on her works given that through scientific observation Emily had been able to develop powerful descriptions which could be found in her poetry.

Nevertheless, such intellectual stimulation had ended when Emily was enrolled into Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847 to continue her education. This transition marked the start of her continuous self-isolation, which continued throughout her life. Some biographers, site that the establishment couldn’t give Dickinson any new knowledge and was spiritual stifling for her. Indeed, the school record, inspired by the teachings of John Calvin, categorised Emily as “without hope” for salvation.

Think like a Historian:

Do you think education was open to every women during Emily Dickinson’s time? Why do you think so?

Returning home and death

After only one year there, Dickinson had left the school and returned to her parents’ household. As an unmarried woman, Dickinson was expected to take up household tasks, to which she opposed strongly finding the housework dissatisfying. For example, in her letter from the early 1850s she says “God keep me from what they call households,” thus demonstrating frustration and dislike for the domestic work. Dickinson reflected her attitude towards traditional womanhood in her poetry. Opposition to the traditional roles is a distinct theme that runs throughout most of Dickinson’s poetry. For example, in I’m “wife”—I’ve finished that— the narrator is evidently frustrated at her relationship with her husband. Maybe this is the reason for why she had never married (another reason was that Dickinson almost definitely loved women and not men, but that’s still, is disputed by literary historians and biographers).

From about mid 1850s Dickinson grew more and more isolated due to her mother’s declining health and the consequent need to look after the household. Nevertheless, the period from 1855 to about 1880 had proven to be the most fruitful for Dickinson as she had wrote the majority of her works at that time. Although Emily Dickinson’s works weren’t published during her lifetime, soon after her death her poetry had been rediscovered and had a massive success both in the USA and in Europe. 

As usual BBC 4’s In Our Time comes in to save a day with their podcast about Emily Dickinson being available for you to listen to on your way to school, college, or work!

Contextualising Emily Dickinson

Emphasis on the beauty of the natural world shouldn’t come as a surprise. Early 19th century saw the rise in discussion of what human nature actually was and whether human nature was a distinct, classifiable thing. Indeed, scientists like Charles Darwin and Lincoln were challenging the religious dogma ingrained into contemporary European society by the theory of evolution and classification of species.

Although this program seems a bit old and a bit long, it is very useful for understanding the relationship between philosophy and science in the Enlightenment England.

Just as the scientists asked a question about human nature, so had the literary circles. In 1838, famous American poet, Emerson told his Harvard audience, in his The Divinity of School Address ,“Always the seer is a sayer”; thus acknowledging human need for classification. However, differently to his scientific colleagues,  he emphasised to his listeners and readers’ that the word “definition” can be defined as one wishes and thus liberating the writer or a poet from strict definitions to explore different forms of poetry.

And here is a quick video about Emerson and his influence on American literature of 1830s.

Think like a Historian:

Can you think of any other ways in which the context in which Emily Dickinson lived allowed her to write her poetry?

Historians In Conversation: Historiography (1/2)

Given that our project is based on educating and sparking curiosity about history we decided to address a gap that exists between the academic study of history and its study at either schools or colleges here in the UK. Our new series, Historians In Conversation, will have its own separate section on the website and will be dedicated to discussions about the way how to bridge this knowledge and skills gap between university and GCSE or even A-level.

As means of introduction

Everyone disagrees. Sometimes people disagree on various daily topics- what take out to order or what movie to watch during a family-bonding evening. Historians disagree on such topics as well. But they also disagree on the interpretation of past events- historiography. This post is dedicated to some of our thoughts on what historiography is and how to handle it.

What is Historiography?

Broadly speaking, Historiography is the way how historians chose to interpret the past events, based on the evidence they are able to find. Let’s take our own project as an example of Historiography. As you can see from the layout of our website, we’ve chosen to arrange our “histories” section in accordance with geographical areas and historical periods. We did this because we didn’t want to limit ourselves, or any potential future writers, to a specific interpretation of what history is. Indeed, we want to incorporate as many angles as possible. That’s why you can find our posts about US politics in 20th century in the same virtual space as the Mediaeval Islamic palaces, or even the Russian Romantics. Historiography, therefore, involves historians choosing an approach that they think will work best for their analysis of the past events.

Think like a Historian:

What approaches do you think historians use when trying to analyse a lot of sources and to derive sound conclusions from those?

Different Schools of Historiography

As mentioned above Historiography involves historians choosing a way or ways to interpret and to analyse the body of evidence which they’re writing about. Indeed, Historiography doesn’t have one singular approach. There are many ways, or schools, in Historiography that historians chose to use when analysing the evidence that they’d found. We’ve decided to give a brief overview of major Historiographical schools in the West and to provide reading lists for them. This post is dedicated to Historiography that emerged in the Classical Antiquity to the twentieth century. In our second post we’ll be discussing more modern approaches to Historiography.

A quick PSA, please be aware that the categories we’d chosen are very very broad and by no means reflect the nuances of the works we’d mentioned. As a result, we strongly recommend to read those.

Ancient Historiography

People from the very beginnings of humanity have always talked about their collective past. However, one of the first individuals in the West who had directly dealt with writing and interpreting the causes and effects of past events was an ancient Greek scholar, Herodotus. In his Histories Herodotus predominantly discusses the origin of conflict between Greek city states and the barbarians. Both Ancient Roman and Greek historians when writing their interpretation of the past events focused predominantly on the end outcome of the action, therefore making it appear that most rulers were destined to either win or lose a battle or a political debate.

Suggested reading list:

  • Herodotus, Histories
  • Hesiod, Five Ages of Man

Think like a Historian:

Can different Historiographical traditions influence each other? Why do you think so?
If you’ve heard Herodotus’ name before, especially if you’d played Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, here is a quick video about him.

Mediaeval Christian Historiography

As the traditional pigeon-holing of historical periods goes, after the Classical period came the Mediaeval period. With a new period came new emphasis on history writing. Speaking broadly, Historiography in the Middle Ages focused on attributing various successes in battles and politics to fate that was controlled by God. Just as Ancient Historiography, the Historiography in the Mediaeval Europe focused on the end result, or a telos. However, several the differences were present. For example, Mediaeval Historiography introduced the idea of punishment for one’s sins rather than for being on the ‘wrong side’ as Classical Historiography did.

Suggested reading list:

  • Bede, Ecclesiastical History of England (the file we’d attached has a very lovely introduction to history writing in the Middle Ages)
Originally a podcast, but now a YouTube video that only has an audio, give a listen to this podcast about Bede that was produced by the wonderful team of BBC’s in Our Time.

Enlightenment Historiography

After several hundred years, a new trend in Historiographical writing emerged. The historians of the Enlightenment were predominantly preoccupied with discussing what the terms ‘societal progress’ and ‘manners’ were. That is not to say that the only preoccupation of historians in this period was to address the philosophical questions as the ones above. Indeed, the discussions of ‘progress’ were rooted in a debate about breaking away economically from feudalism of the Middle Ages.

Suggested reading lisT:

  • David Hume, History of England (the work overall has 6 volumes, so to save up space we’re attaching only the first volume)
  • Voltaire, Essay upon the Civil Wars in France and other writings on history (we suggest that you use this collection of essays)
  • Nikolay Karamzin, Memoirs (although not a work of historiography per se the writer does talk about his experience and motivations behind writing his most famous work ,The History of the Russian State, which is sadly not available in English translation)
Although this video doesn’t discuss the Historiographical trends that arose in the Enlightenment, it does encapsulate what the Enlightenment was quite well.

Think like a Historian:

Can different schools of thought conflict with each other? Can you think of any examples? They don’t necessarily have to be connected to Historiography.

The Whig Historiography

This Historiographical tradition emerged towards the end of the Enlightenment period in the first half of the 20th century as a somewhat counter-culture to the Enlightenment history-writing tradition. Whig historians, most notably Herbert Butterfield, argued that the discussion about ‘progress’ has misinterpreted what the word ‘progress’ actually meant. Butterfield objected to the idea that ‘progress’ meant ‘better over a period of time’ and suggested to lose any moral connotations that the word may have. Whilst proving and remaining highly controversial, this view point highlighted many issues historians face today- that of having hindsight and projecting present moral judgements onto the past.

Suggested reading list:

Marxist Historiography

This Historiographical trend was influenced by the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marxist historians highlight the importance of class struggle as well as the inequalities that stem from economic factors. Although proven controversial amongst more Conservative historians, such an approach gained increasing popularity in Europe from 1920s onwards.


  • Matt Perry, Marxism and History
  • Karl Marx, Preface to A Critique of Political Economy
  • Eric Hobsbawm, On History (Hobsbawn is a Marxist historian so the book should give you a neat overview of popular Marxist views about history)
  • Sir Richard J. Evans, Eric Hobsbawm: A Life, is an extremely well-written biography of Hobsbawn, which will be useful for those who don’t want to dwell in Marxist interpretations for too long.

Annales Historiography

This school of Historiography is a relatively young one. Originating with the creation of the French Annales journal in the 1930s, the approach gained significant popularity in the mainland Europe. Historians who use this approach emphasise the view that it was contemporary cultural trends that dictated most of the historical events. They also emphasise the surrounding environment in shaping history.

Here is a video that discusses the Annales school in slightly more details.

Think like a Historian:

What approaches to Historiography do you think are popular today? Can you give any examples?

St Augustine of Hippo and Education

Education as a socio-cultural entity is constantly developing. Such changes are most prominently seen in the various debates and alterations that occur to the syllabuses and teaching approaches. However, have you ever wondered how and why education developed to where it is today? We’ve decided to dedicate this post to a prominent late ancient theologian who had some significant influence on the course of education development in the West, St Augustine of Hippo.

Think like a Historian:

What purpose do you think schools have within a society apart from education? What is the role of the teachers?
This is a map of the Roman Empire and the neighbouring Carthaginian Empire. St Augustine was born in the geographical area between the yellow blob and the dark purple blob, a territory which was taken over by Romans in 200s.
This video unpicks in detail how the Carthaginian Empire came to be.
This is a more general video that discusses both the rise and fall of Carthaginian Empire.

St Augustine: A Concise Biography

St Augustine (lat. Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis) was born in 354 in Numidia, a Roman province, in North Africa. Scholars generally agree that St Augustine was influenced by his family whilst growing up in terms of his religious beliefs. His mother was a Christian, whilst his father was a pagan and only converted to Christianity on his deathbed. Such a marriage was a fairly common occurrence given that contemporary society had plenty of non-Christian religious cults and social traditions; evidence for which could be found in some of St Augustine’s sermons.

At the ripe age of 17 years old hedonistic and freedom loving St Augustine went to study rhetoric in Carthage, the centre of learning in Numidia. After a brief teaching career in Carthage and his own hometown of Tagaste, St Augustine travelled to Rome in 383 to continue with his studies. Soon he became associated with the royal court in the neighbouring Milan and became an official professor of rhetoric there. However, his political career there was unsuccessful and following the death of his only son, St Augustine found himself in a position of a bishop in a town of Hippo. He remained in this position for the rest of his life.

This is a video about St Augustine’s views on theology and philosophy.

St Augustine on Education

Given that St Augustine lived in a geographical area that was highly influenced by differing socio-cultural ideas it is unsurprising that he tried to educate local peoples on the official Christian teachings. As a result, a lot of topics that St Augustine discussed are rooted in Christian-based arguments. Nevertheless, this shouldn’t scare us off and cause us to disregard them as outdated as the views expressed by St Augustine remain a significant influence on the way teachers and students interact.

Before we dive into what methods St Augustine recommended for both teachers and students to use, we need to look at how St Augustine saw knowledge. Although according to St Augustine some knowledge (such as knowledge of God’s existence) was present in humans since birth, he viewed the process of acquiring knowledge about the physical world in several stages. Stage one was to gather new information; stage two was to examine the information given; and stage three was to derive conclusions from the analysis of the information. As a result, St Augustine differentiates between knowledge and belief as the former is a process and the latter is not. Such reasoning is not in any way a product of a genius reasoning process. In his understanding of knowledge St Augustine bases his view on an idea that belonged to a Greek philosopher, Plato, who’d argued that humans have innate knowledge about the ideal world that is beyond our physical reality. Consequently, by borrowing some ideas about knowledge from ancient Greek philosophers St Augustine emphasises in his approach to gathering knowledge the idea that it is a process which by no means is a finite entity; thus allowing for some doubts and mistakes to be made on the way.

A quick video about who Plato was and his philosophy.

Just as St Augustine emphasised an idea that learning is a process, he viewed teachers as mentors to the students in this process. Although a significant tension arises from his view that teachers are meant to help students acquire knowledge and that some knowledge is innate, his arguments are still present in today’s approach to education. St Augustine argued that teaching should occur within a context of a community and discussions; an idea that he had probably borrowed from Classical philosophers, like Aristotle and Plato, who’d often employed this type of teaching. Equally, such an approach could’ve arisen because of the lack of literacy within the contemporary society and therefore discussion was the only means of passing information to other people. Apart from the process occurring through discussion, St Augustine also recommended teachers to differentiate between the styles of teaching. The ‘restrained style’ was reserved for discussing subject-specific ideas and questions that may arise from such discussions, whilst ‘the mixed style’ was meant to be used when the teacher had to spark an interest in the subject. The final style, called ‘grand’, was to be used to inspire students and to encourage them to explore the topic on their own. All of these styles were meant to inspire students to understand God, rather than to learn how to, for example, solve math problems. Consequently, whilst being influenced by the culture around him St Augustine managed to develop Classical views on the role of the teacher in their interactions with students by bringing in a Christian worldview.

Think like a Historian:

To what extent do you think historians can conclude that the judgement that they’d derived from the information gained from the source is fully accurate? Why do you think so?
This is a very informative video that focuses on the historical developments of education in the Western world. It discusses the classical approaches as well as some modern ones.

Finally, let’s address the views St Augustine expressed about students and their education as without the latter group teaching process becomes meaningless. For Augustine there were three types of students: those who were uneducated, those who were educated but by teachers who did not encourage critical thinking and those who were educated in the liberal arts. With the two first groups St Augustine recommended to question their knowledge and to patiently and clearly encourage the students to develop their own ideas about the information they received. When teaching the last group of students, St Augustine recommended to not focus on the information that the students already knew but instead to challenge them into exploring new material. Once again, even here, St Augustine is probably borrowing from the ancient Greek scholars as similar approaches were discussed by another Greek thinker, Aristotle.

Think like a Historian:

Do ideas ever exist in isolation to each other? Is there ever an idea that is truly unique? Apply your views to differing views historians may have on the same topics.

To explore this topic further…

  • If you’re interested in St Augustine and his core teachings, the introduction of St Augustine’s Confessions that is edited by Penguin Books is an excellent place to start. The introduction gives a reader a concise overview of his ideas and how they developed as well as some biographical details. This edition will also be super helpful to those students that are studying philosophy or theology.
  • If you’re interested in the history of North Africa in the Ancient period we strongly recommend Susan Raven’s book, Rome in Africa. It gives you sufficient breadth to grasp the socio-economic as well as the political relationship the Romans had with the region.
  • If you’re interested in Western philosophy and its history, an amazing book to start you off with is Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. It’s is also extremely useful for those readers who are either studying philosophy or theology at A-level level at school or at undergraduate level.

Representation of the Caucasus in Russian Romantic Literature

We’re sure that you’re aware of a fact that certain actions have certain consequences. You stole the last piece of the Red Velvet cake and now your sibling is upset. Or you had an argument with someone and now they’re not particularly keen on talking to you. Or you wrote a subversive piece of literature and you get sent off to a very far away geographical region which your country has been progressively invading for some time. Obviously, we’re exaggerating here slightly about the Red Velvet cakes; but the elements of intrigue, arguments, duels, subversive pieces of literature and most importantly history still stand. In this post we will be discussing Russian Romantic writers and their links to the Caucasus region.

Think like a Historian:

Why would a monarch be willing to send someone very far away from a capital city? Why do you think so?
Here is a modern-day map of the region we will be discussing in our post. (cc: Lermontov, M.Y., ‘A Hero of Our Time’, ed. Penguin Classics)

Russian Romanticism: A Brief Introduction

When academics mention the word “Romantic” or “Romanticism” they are usually referring to a socio-cultural movement that lasted from about 1780s to 1830s. Evidences for Romanticism are wide-ranging, such as paintings, music, and philosophical works. However, this post will solely focus on literary sources, such as poems and novels.

A brief overview of Romanticism and the philosophy behind it

Russian Romanticism was heavily influenced by two strands of contemporary thought: German philosophical tradition, called Naturphilosophie, and British Byronism. Thinkers of Naturphilosophie placed emphasis on an idea that human beings are separate from nature, therefore suggesting that humans cannot be understood by using methods of scientific experimentation. Byronism, on the other hand, was tied to aesthetics. Just as Naturphilosophie, Byronism highlights the importance of a special nature of humans in relation to nature. Differently to the German tradition, Byronism also emphasised a self-indulgent, often inappropriate even by contemporary standards, behaviour and the value of human emotions on an individual level.

SOURCE TIME: Here are two portraits. The one on the left depicts Lord Byron, who is considered to be the founder of the Byronic tradition. This portrait was painted in by a famous contemporary artist Richard Westall in 1813. The portrait on the right depicts A.S. Pushkin, a famous writer of the Russian Romantic tradition. It was painted by an experienced artist Orest Kiprensky in 1827. Can you find any similarities between the two portraits? Think about why these similarities could have arose in the first place. Is it just to make Pushkin’s portrait look fancy?

Caucasus in Russian Romantic Literature

One of the predominant ways how the Caucasus region is framed in Russian Romantic literary tradition is as a place of exile, veiled in a dream-like atmosphere that verges on a sense of longing. For instance, this is how A.S. Pushkin describes the Caucasian mountains in his narrative poem, A Prisoner of Caucasus: [Mount Beshtau] “Will I ever forget its gritty heights,/ Its gushing springs, its withering plains…The impressions of a young soul?”. In these lines there is a clear focus on a natural beauty and a sense of longing. Although it is possible to argue that Pushkin is exploiting a common contemporary literary trope that describes Caucasian mountains as having a special aesthetic quality, such a position ignores the possible explanation for why such tropes arose. Indeed, such descriptions shouldn’t come as a surprise as some of the Russian Romantic writers and poets were sent away to Caucasus at a young age as part of their punishment for what the State perceived to be subversive behaviour, including writing a piece of literature which undermined the authority of the State. The attitude expressed by Pushkin, who himself was exiled twice in his lifetime, therefore probably reflects the probable stifling effect the State-sponsored censorship had on individual writers as the Caucasus seems to represent a sense of freedom, despite the government officials framing the location as a punishment. Consequently, some Russian Romantics didn’t see Caucasus as the means of punishment but rather as a place of liberation, contrary to the official governmental position.

Unsurprisingly, another common association which the Russian Romantics tended to explore in their works is that of Caucasus as a place of earthly pleasure, and romantic pursuits. Such tropes could be seen in Pushkin’s Prisoner of Caucasus, where the protagonist falls in love with a local woman, but has to leave her in order to come back to mainland Russia. As evidenced by the passage below, the narrator emphasises the overtly emotional attachment the woman has towards the character of the Prisoner. This may suggest that for Russian Romantic writers Caucasus was seen as a place of exotic pleasure which was maybe unattainable or seen as immoral within the elite social circles. However, as one could see in Lermontov‘s passage, the attachment to the region seems to also be in the potential secrecy of the encounters, rather than in the ‘exotic’ nature of locals. Although it is possible to argue that the two concepts are self-supporting as inappropriate behaviour had to remain secret from social circles back in St Petersburg or Moscow, such an argument lacks nuance. This is because it does not follow that socio-cultural inappropriate behaviour had to remain secret. After all, why would Pushkin boast about his long list of lovers in 1830s; and according to some literary critics and historians to have included some gypsy women whom he’d met whilst in exile in Bessarabia province? Consequently, some Russian Romantics, most prominently Pushkin, associated Caucasus with the possibility to lead a morally dubious lifestyle within the standards of their society.

Nevertheless, with hedonistic pursuits came various dangers. Some of such dangers seemed to have stemmed from conflicts that arose due to the subversion of the established social order and often ended up in duels as the means of the last resort to settle the conflict. Such is the case with the protagonist in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, Grigori Pechorin, who ends up on duelling grounds to settle a dispute with another young man, Grushnickiy, over the hand of Countess Mary. Yet, a duelling trope seems to be very common to Russian literature of the period and not particularly associated with Caucasus. For example, Pushkin’s characters from Eugene Onegin, Onegin and Lensky participate in a duel in a similar circumstances as Pechorin and Grushnitskiy. As a result, Caucasus was probably not seen as somewhat of a massive duelling ground. Indeed, the descriptions of Caucasus lifestyle seem to focus predominantly on highly localised dangers. For instance, the main trope of Pushkin’s Prisoner of Caucasus is that the character of the Prisoner ends up in a remote Caucasian village because of an unexpected raid by local tribesmen onto his military garrison. This therefore suggests that Caucasus was associated with unexpectant dangers. Consequently,Caucasus was viewed as both a place of hedonistic pursuits and deathly dangers.

SOURCE TIME: This time we decided to make the sources slightly more fun. Here are two distinct duel scenes. The one at the top is taken from a film adaptation of Lermontov’s ‘A Hero of Our Time’. The one below it is taken from a film adaptation of Pushkin’s ‘Eugene Onegin’. Assuming that both duels are somewhat grounded on original authors’ life experiences and that the film-makers of the adaptation did an excellent job at reconstructing the duels that took place in 1830s Russia what can you find out about duels and culture around them? Think about what kind of people participated in duels and most importantly why would the duels occur in real life? Would they be solely focused on resolving an argument?

Think like a Historian:

Based on the information in this post, why do you think there was such differing interpretations of Caucasus in Russian Romantic literature?

Important vocabulary

  • Aesthetic: the way an artist or a writer choses to portray their work according to what they think is beautiful.
  • Romanticism: a socio-cultural movement that lasted from 1780s to 1830s.
  • Naturphilosophie: a strand of philosophical thought that originated in Germany and focused on an idea that human beings are separate from nature, therefore suggesting that humans cannot be understood by using methods of scientific experimentation.
  • Byronism: a socio-cultural phenomena that later developed into its own philosophical thought that emphasised a self-indulgent, often inappropriate even by contemporary standards, behaviour and the value of human emotions on an individual level.

To explore the topic further…

  • If you’re interested in reading more about the way Romanticism was incorporated into Russian philosophy and thought, we strongly recommend reading Marlene Laruelle’s Russian Nationalism: Imaginaries, Doctrines, and Political Battlefields. Although it doesn’t focus on Russian Romantic thought throughout the entire book, there are several chapters that discuss it in detail.
  • If you’re generally interested in Romanticism generally a good place to start is N.V. Riasanovsky’s The Emergence of Romanticism. It’s a comprehensible read and the author gives the reader an in depth introduction to Romantic movements in Britain and Germany.
  • If you’re interested in finding more about Lermontov, we’re attaching an article about him to this bullet point.
  • If you’re interested reading both ‘A Hero of Our Time’ and ‘Prisoner of Caucasus’ that are mentioned in the posts we’re attaching a pdf copy of the latter and a web-link to this bullet point.

Orientalism And the Middle Ages: Islamic Palaces In The Eyes Of The Crusaders

What do you imagine when someone mentions an “Islamic palace” to you? Do you think of a royal palace from Disney’s Aladdin or do you think about more realistic examples that you saw in a documentary about travelling? This post will try to assess how European Crusaders understood and perceived of Islamic palaces through the medium of contemporary popular poems, also known as romances.

Comparison between the Sultan’s palace in Disney’s Aladdin and an actual royal palace in Seville, Spain. The actual palace has some significant Islamic influences.

Think like a Historian:

Can a historian use popular culture (i.e. things that are popular within a culture) to derive any conclusions about a society that they are studying? Can you fine both pros and cons for such an approach?

What were the Crusades and who were the Crusaders?

The Crusades, broadly speaking, were a series of socio-political conflicts that spanned from 1096 and 1271. Historians argue that there were several crusades, with the first few focusing on reaching Jerusalem and the latter ones emphasising the need to break-up Islamic rule on the Iberian Peninsula. These conflicts were often framed by figures in power as having a religious angle, which focused on Christianity being “suppressed” by Islam and therefore the latter requiring protection. Consequently, the Crusades were a wide-ranging series of socio-political conflicts that took place in Europe and the Middle East.

The Crusaders were the individuals involved in the Crusades. These individuals often came from all parts of Europe. They were usually various figures in power, such as rulers, and their subordinates, knights. The motives of such individuals was often highly complex and usually linked to wider geo-political and geo-economic implications as well as some personal ones. However, to say that these groups only consisted of knights in shining armours and powerful kings is an extremely simplistic explanation of who the Crusaders were. Indeed, the Crusaders were not a monolith group of people. There were also individuals of lower social standing, who usually joined the crusading groups to earn some income or to gain social prominence. Consequently, the Crusaders were not a unanimously agreeing group of people and came from differing socio-cultural backgrounds.

Think like a Historian:

Can people from the same socio-cultural group have differing ideas what their culture is? Can you give any examples?
SOURCE TIME: Here are two Mediaeval songs, also known as romances, from approximately the same period. They were written at the time of the Crusades and probably were quite popular amongst the Crusaders. What can you understand from these songs about the Crusaders and their aims? Are these sources enough to fully understand their intentions?

Islamic Palaces as Described in Mediaeval Romances

When assessing how the Crusaders perceived and understood Islamic palaces a historian should look at the scope of possible evidence. In the case of this post we will only be looking at two romances that involve a narrative centred around royal Islamic palace. The sources that will be assessed are: The Song of Roland and Charlemagne’s Journey To Jerusalem and Constantinople.

Both texts seem to frame the Islamic palace as a place where some form of negotiation takes place. Such negotiations are often centred around the formation of political interactions. For example, In Charlemagne’s Journey the group of Franks is permitted to dine and live in King Hugo’s palace whilst residing in Constantinople as part of what seems to be an unexpectant diplomatic visit. This suggests that the Islamic palaces were seen in a positive light as long as the interactions involved the Europeans. Indeed, narratives that did not involve the presence of the Europeans were probably seen as potentially dangerous and subversive to political power. In The Song of Roland, for instance, the character of the Emir strikes a profitable alliance with the King of Marseille who gives him “all of [his] lands and Saragossa and all the land that appertains thereto”, therefore providing the latter with sufficient resources to fight against Charlemagne. Such narrative suggests that the palaces served as the means to frame the environment of the characters. As a result, palaces seem to be used as the means to frame some key sections of the overall narrative and thus was probably should be understood as a symbol of political importance for contemporaneous readers or listeners.

SOURCE TIME: This is a painting by a Saxonian painter, Julius Köckert. It was painted in the mid 1850s. Saxony is now part of Germany. This painting depicts a diplomatic meeting between Harun al-Rashid and Charlemagne’s envoys in Baghdad. Harun al-Rashid was an Islamic ruler whose reign corresponded with what historians call an ‘Islamic Golden Age’. There is no historical evidence for such a meeting taking place. However, contemporary European chronicles associated with Charlemagne’s court do mention envoys from ‘the East’ visiting Charlemagne’s court. Why do you think a palace is absent from this painting? Think about how the painter chose to depict both Charlemagne and Harun al-Rashid.

Both texts appear to frame the Islamic palaces as highly exotic and rich places. There are numerous associations and mentions of “opulent” surroundings and “gold” and “silver” in both texts when the narrative is centred around the palace. This is most clear in Charlemagne’s Journey as the narrative predominantly describes what Charlemagne and his company saw within King Hugo’s palace, rather in the Song of Roland as the latter focuses on the military actions of both Muslims and the Franks. Charlemagne’s Journey continuously makes mention of “rich splendour” of King Hugo’s palace, which could be seen in such descriptions like “the tables and chairs and benches are of pure gold” and “with costly paintings of animals and of dragons”. This could suggest that for European Crusaders Islamic palaces, or even Islamic kings and kingdoms, connoted to the source of wealth. In order to make a more plausible interpretation of such a conclusion one may have to look at the actual examples that the Crusaders were likely to encounter on their routes to either the Middle East or the Islamic held regions. As a result, Islamic palaces seem to connote to a place of richness, which in turn is used as a rhetorical devise to strike awe into the contemporary readers or listeners.

As a consequence of the wealth described in the two poems, Islamic palaces seem to gain an aspect of ‘otherness’, or a high degree of difference from the European palaces. As has been mentioned above, contemporary bards often used highly superfluous language to describe the richness of the Islamic palaces. Yet, this is one of the very few features than makes an Islamic palace special in the eyes of the authors of the two sources. Although it could be argued that such a narrative is centred predominantly around the individuals rather than the palaces, such an argument does not account for the overall implications the palatial setting may have had. If compared to the narrative that surrounds European palaces little positive actions happen in the walls of Islamic palaces. The Song of Roland has the narrative of striking deals between Charlemagne’s enemies within the palace walls whilst Charlemagne’s palace is being associated with justice, specifically just punishments. Similarly, the walls of the Islamic palace in Charlemagne’s Journey are associated with deception as they contain special holes through which the cunning advisors can listen in to the drunken brawls of the Franks. As a result, there seems to be a tension between the authors envisioning Islamic palaces as a desirable, economically wealthy place and the potential deception that may have occurred in the setting. Consequently, there may be a hint of fear or at least uncertainty from the European perspective in relation to Islamic palaces in some of the Mediaeval romances.

Think like a Historian:

Why do you think Mediaeval writers depicted Islamic palaces in such a way? Was it to make the text interesting or are there wider implications? Why do you think so?

To explore this topic further…

Enjoy 🙂