Scandals, desire and cultures compared in the book by Ibn Jubayr, who arrives in Sicily in the thirteenth century following a shipwreck
A little book has recently been published which has not been given the attention it deserves. The book dates back to the last years of the 12th century and talks about us, about the problems we have to face by coming into contact with cultures that are very different from ours. The author is a cultured Muslim, Ibn Jubayrthat during the trip returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca, he lands in Sicily following a shipwreck (Journey to Sicily, Adelphi 2022). The fact that I'm about to tell happens between the end of 1184 and the beginning of 1185 and is noted in the castaway's diary.
Messina, the first Sicilian city he visits, appears to the diarist "wrapped in the darkness of unbelief, (...) crowded with worshipers of the cross". Because of this generalized disbelief, scandalous events occur which put a strain on people of sound Islamic religiosity: "There is that if a father by chance becomes angry with his son or with his wife, or a mother with her daughter, anyone who has incurred the wrath of his parents is driven by pride to rush to a church, and there he becomes a Christian and gets baptized, and the father no longer has a way of getting his son back, nor the mother her daughter. Imagine the state of mind of those put to such a severe test!".
In Trapani, when the survivors of the shipwreck are about to embark to return home, a fact occurs which the Muslim intellectual notes in great detail. A paraphrase would impoverish the episode and I prefer to leave the word to the author: “One of the notables of this city sent his son to one of our pilgrimage companions to let him know that he wished to offer him his daughter, very young and still a virgin. That he should marry her if it pleased her, or otherwise give her in marriage to whoever wanted her in her country: she would take her away, happy to be separated from her father and brothers, eager as she was to free herself from the danger of that temptation [cristiana], eager to reach the countries of Islam”. The very religious Muslim “accepted [l’offerta della vergine] to acquire merits for his future life, and – comments the diarist – we helped him to take advantage of this favorable occasion for the good of this life and the next”.
The chronicles of our day force us to take note that similar episodes still occur today despite the fact that more than eight centuries have passed since Ibn Jubayr wrote. Here, however, it is interesting to note, by contrast, the female cultural revolution that the "worshippers of the cross" were operating in that period in Europe and in that fragment of Europe called Sicily. To appreciate it, I compare the diary of the Muslim Ibn Jubayr with the representation of women by the poets of the poetic school that Frederick II will soon found.
Let's read the poem by Cielo d'Alcamo. Here the woman is no man's property, she is courted and indulges freely as she pleases. She is an active subject of sexual desire.
The poem begins by staging the frustrations of a man in love: tràgemi d'este fòcora, se t'este a bolontate; / for you I am not happy [requie] night and day, / pending for you, my lady.
From the beginning of the poem, the lover appeals to the free will of the woman: se t'este a bolontate "if this is your will". No one, including the pater familias, can decide on a woman's body against her will.
The woman's answer is disdainful: If you are trabàgliati, madness makes you do it. / (…) / you cannot have me in this world; / forward the caves m'aritonno [piuttosto mi taglio i capelli nel senso di “mi faccio monaca”].
The man insistently asks for the fulfillment of his sexual desire: di quaci non mi mòsera se non ai' de lo fruit, / lo cui stäo ne lo tuo giardino: / disïolo in the evening and in the morning. The woman replies, proudly recalling that she had refused to give the fruit of her garden to so many men of valor: Of that fruit I will not have accounts, nor cabalieri, / molto lo disïarono marquises and executioners, / have no power: giro nde molto feri [se ne andarono molto adirati].
In the end the woman lets herself be seduced and the long courtship concludes with the invitation of the woman (of the woman!) to seal the love pact in bed: Meo sire, poi iuràstimi, eo all the incenno [mi arrendo], / I am in your presence, I do not defend myself from you. / S'eo minespreso àioti [se ti ho disprezzato]merze [ti chiedo scusa], I am with you. / I won't go to bed [andiamo] a la bon'ora, / who knows what is given in ventura.
This happens, among the "worshippers of the cross", in Sicily, European and non-Cattopardian, of the thirteenth century. A real cultural revolution. The Muslim intellectual Ibn Jubayr why shouldn't he be scandalized?
History repeats itself.