Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321) was a Florentine poet who bridged the artistic cultures of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance. Dante’s approach to his poetry foreshadowed the Renaissance with his use of vernacular Italian rather than Latin, and his frequent allusion to classical Greek and Roman literature and history. However, his subject matter was typically Medieval; the Divine Comedy trilogy concerns questions of salvation and of humanity’s relationship with God. It is designed as an imagined explorations of Hell (Inferno), Purgatory, and Paradise, set in the year 1300. Echoing some of the issues of the Investiture Controversy, Dante was also troubled with the church’s continued interest in secular matters, and the continued influence of secular leaders over the church. The following Canto from the first part of the Divine Comedy is about priests (especially popes) who bribed their way into office. To buy one’s office is the sin of simony, named for Simon Magus who in the New Testament Book of Acts attempted to buy the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Inferno of Dante Alghieri (London: JM Dent and Co. 1900)
Composed in Arabic and translated into Persian in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Chachnama details the Arab conquest of the Sind (a province corresponding to northwest India and Pakistan) in the eighth century. The work details the most successful of the many attempts by Muslims to conquer the region, which was led by Muhammad Ibn Qasim, a cousin of the governor of Iraq. In this history of the campaign, Ibn Qasim is both a conquering hero and a defender of Islam, subduing non-Muslims and imposing new religious values in his wake.
The Chachnamah: An Ancient History of Sind, trans. Mirza Kalichbeg Fredunbeg, available online at http://persian.packhum.org/persian/main?url=pf%3Ffile%3D12701030%26ct%3D0.
Ibn al-Athir was a Muslim scholar whose most important work was al-Kamil fi at-tarikh (“The Complete History”), a history of the world. Born in Jazirat in 1160, he lived most of his life in Mosul but traveled widely in the Muslim lands of southwest Asia, including several trips to Baghdad, and later lived in Aleppo and Damascus. As a young man he spent time with Saladin’s army in Syria as Saladin fought the Crusader states. He died in 1233 in Mosul. Here he tells the story of the origin of the Crusades as he had it and then describes the Frankish conquest of Jerusalem in 1099.
From Francesco Gabrieli, Arab Historians of the Crusades. University of California Press (1957): 3–4, 7–9, 10–12. Copyright © 1957 The Regents of the University of California.
Abd al-Hamid al-Ghazali
Originally from Persia (Iran), Abd al-Hamid al- Ghazali (1058-1111 CE) was an educated scholar living and working in Baghdad, the cosmopolitan center of the Muslim world at that time. Midway through his career, however, Ghazali changed course and took up the Sufi mystic path of contemplation and writing. His scholarly background helped him reconcile orthodox Islam with the individualism of Sufism.
Abd al-Hamid al-Ghazali, Confessions (1100), trans. by Claude Field (E. P. Dutton, 1909).
A Latin scholar, poet, and biographer, Boccaccio (1313–1375) is most famous today as the author of the Decameron. This compilation of 100 tales, by turns serious, bawdy, and irreverent, purports to be a rendition of the stories told over the course of 10 days by 10 young men and women who had fled Florence to escape the Black Death. Many of the tales are based on older legends, and they frequently reflect the humor of the common people of the era, often at the expense of their spiritual and social betters. Religious authorities were frequent targets of this sort of satire, reflecting their ubiquitous presence in the lives of medieval Europeans, as well as, perhaps, a deep undercurrent of resentment regarding their privileges.
Giovanni Boccaccio, “Putting the Devil Back in Hell” (3.10), from The Decameron: Selected Tales / Decameron: Novelle scelte, trans. Stanley Appelbaum (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2000), 87–93.
‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Bakrī
Al-Bakrī was born in Spain, and it appears that he never left that country. However, he collected information from people he met who had traveled to the Sahara and the Sudan, and he published his findings in a work called The Book of Routes and Realms (Kitāb al-masālik wa-’l-mamālik). Al-Bakrī, who died in 1094, was famous for his curiosity about the geography, languages, and natural landscape of places he had not himself visited. The greater part of his major book is still unpublished, but the following section provides insight into the changing religious landscape in Ghana in the early eleventh century.
‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Bakrī, “Ghāna and the Customs of Its Inhabitants,” trans. J. F. P. Hopkins, in N. Levtzion and J. F. P. Hopkins, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 79–81.
In the medieval period Ethiopia became a multiethnic, multilingual, and multireligious state in which the kings limited the church’s conversion efforts. Nevertheless, the kings continued to emphasize their Christian identity, and this factor is reflected in their adoption and endorsement of the Fetha Nagast, or Law of the Kings, in the mid-fifteenth century. This legal code had originally been written in Arabic by a Coptic Christian in Egypt, probably in the mid-thirteenth century. While living under Muslim rule, the Copts were allowed to adopt portions of Justinian’s law code and the resolutions of church councils for their own governance. Translated from Greek, and with many Biblical passages added, the code connected Egyptian Christians to their Byzantine, Roman, and Judeo-Christian heritage, founding the basis of law squarely in that tradition. The Ethiopian monarchs had the Arabic source translated into Ge’ez (the state language of Ethiopia at the time), and the translator added a section on kingship, a portion of which is offered below. The Law of the Kings remained the law in Ethiopia until 1930, when Emperor Haile Selassie I issued the country’s first modern constitution.
Excerpt from The Fetha Nagast, trans. Paulos Tzadua, ed. Peter L. Strauss (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2009), 271–273.
In the catastrophe brought on by the assaults on all their borders, some European midieval Christians were forced to devise new means of self-protection. Into this vacuum of governmental authority came new “feudal” relationships between lords and vassals. Over time, these contractual relationships became increasingly regularized. The terms of these relationships can be reconstructed through documents describing the ceremonial and formulaic aspects of feudal obligations.
James Harvey Robinson, Readings in European History, vol. 1 (Boston: Ginn & Company, 1904), 178–180.
Robert of Avesbury
Although flagellation (beating oneself with a whip) had been practiced as a means of spiritual discipline by monks long before, it did not emerge as a public group activity until the thirteenth century. While Europe was besieged by the Black Death (1348–1352), the Brotherhood of Flagellants (which also included women) resorted to ever more spectacular public flagellation. The movement probably originated in eastern Europe and took root most deeply in German-speaking areas, as the account below demonstrates. As we see from the subsequent report of Robert of Avesbury, however, they had also crossed into England, offering some sort of solution to the plague crisis.
“52. The Flagellants,” from the Chronicon Henrici de Hervordia and from the Concerning the Miraculous Deeds of King Edward III by Robert of Avesbury, in Rosemary Horrox, The Black Death (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1994), 150–154.
Amda Seyon was a fourteenth century king of the Solomonid Dynasty, which ruled Ethiopia from 1270 until 1974. The name of the dynasty, Solomonid, derives from the Ethiopian belief that the kings of Aksum (whom the Solomonids believed were their ancestors) were descended from King Solomon of Israel and the Queen of Sheba. The kings of Aksum and the later Solomonids were Christian, and their king Amda Seyon, led them into warfare in 1329 against Muslims in the neighboring state of Ifat (in north-east Ethiopia). The Solomonids also fought against other neighboring states, including Christians and animists; however, the Glorious Victories of Amda Seyon portrays the war between the Solomonids and Ifat as a religious war between Christians and Muslims. The following excerpt features the king encouraging his army to fight on, paraphrasing the book of Psalms in the process.
The Glorious Victories of Amda Seyon, King of Ethiopia, trans. and ed. G. W. B. Huntingford. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), 67, 69-71.
The Lives of Eminent Korean Monks is a compilation of biographies of Buddhist monks from the Three Kingdoms period of Korean history (first century BCE through the tenth century CE). It promotes Buddhist piety by stressing the (often supernatural) deeds of these monks, and it is also a valuable source for Korean history. In spite of its importance, the work was long thought lost until portions of it were found at a Buddhist temple in the early twentieth century. This passage of the Lives deals with the introduction of Buddhism as the national faith of the Silla Kingdom in 527 CE, under King Pŏpkong.
“Pŏpkong Declares Buddhism the National Faith,” in Peter H. Lee, ed. Sourcebook of Korean Civilization, vol. 1, From Early Times to the Sixteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 75–77.
Gregory Bishop of Tours
Over the course of the fifth century, the Franks became one of the most powerful of the Germanic successor kingdoms. While some other Germanic rulers converted to Arianism, a Christian heresy, perhaps to distinguish themselves from their subject Roman populations, the Frankish kings remained pagan until 496, when their king Clovis converted to Catholic Christianity. This event was therefore a crucial turning point in the political and religious history of the medieval West, building an alliance between the Church and the Frankish state that benefited both sides. There are several accounts of Clovis’s conversion, including this one by Gregory of Tours in his History of the Franks. Gregory (539–594) was a prominent churchman—as bishop of Tours he was the leading prelate in what had been Roman Gaul—and a representative of the old Roman aristocracy of the area. He was personally acquainted with several of the Frankish kings of his own day, and he wrote his history partly to flatter them. Despite this bias, he is generally a reliable, if somewhat naïve, chronicler.
From Gregory Bishop of Tours, History of the Franks, trans. Ernest Brehaut. New York: Columbia University Press (1965): 38–41.
By the era of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), the prevailing orthodox philosophy was Neo-Confucianism, and its master was Chu Hsi (1130–1200). Neo-Confucianism held that there was an underlying, immaterial principle (li) inherent in all things, which gave all things (including human beings) their essence, form, and meaning. Chu Hsi taught that knowledge of this principle could be achieved through a critical analysis of nature and the classic texts, using the powers of observation, analysis, and reflection. Known as the “School of Principle,” Chu Hsi’s philosophy became the official interpretation of Confucianism in China, and its precepts were a central component on the imperial civil service examinations.
A radically different interpretation of li was proposed by Wang Yang-ming (1472–1529), whose philosophy became known as the “School of the Mind.” Born in the village of Yu-yao in the Chekiang province, Wang Yang-ming shocked his tutor at age eleven by declaring that the purpose of learning was not to pass an exam or to win an official government post but to become a sage. Wang was initially a fervent believer in the teachings of Chu Hsi, but his faith was broken when he attempted to follow Chu’s methods of investigation. According to legend, Wang sat down in a bamboo grove determined to discover the li (essence) of bamboo, but after seven days and nights of observation and thought, he only succeeded in making himself ill through exhaustion. This defeat threw him into a deep spiritual crisis, which continued until he experienced a sudden flash of insight into the cause of his failure. Because the immaterial essence of li is found in humans as well as in all things, it was this essence that united mankind to all of nature. Moreover, Wang realized that this essence was best recognized and understood not from the study of bamboo or other objects in the external world but in one’s awareness of one’s jen (humanness) that resided within each person. An awareness of jen was the ultimate key to understanding the unity of all things, an awareness that created a “clear character” and a code of ethical behavior based on one’s innate knowledge of right and wrong. Consequently, the path to knowledge and self-perfection was attainable by all, for it was based entirely on self-awareness without the need for external study or rational thought. Although Wang Yangming’s teachings never gained official status in China, they were important in the philosophical development of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism in China and Japan.
Wang Yang-ming, “Inquiry on The Great Learning,” in Sources of Chinese Tradition, ed. William de Bary, Wing-tsit Chan, and Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press (1960): 571–81.
Many foundation myths around the world link a dynasty or nation’s founder to the divine or magical. The foundation myth of Korea is no exception. Korean mythology dates Tangun to the year 2333 B.C.E., when it is said he became the first ruler of Korea, known then as Choson. Chronologically, this was before the peninsula was divided into the “Three Kingdoms” and thus refers to a unified Korean kingdom. Records from Zhou China refer to this state, although Chinese records enable us to date it to only 1000 B.C.E. Because there was at that time (c. 1000 B.C.E.) no written Korean language, historians have to rely on either Korean myths such as this one or on records from neighboring states, particularly China. However, the Chinese sources have inherent problems, as the relationship between China and Korea has often been fraught with tension. The version here is from the thirteenth century.
“Tangun: Founder of Choson,” from Anthology of Korean Literature: From Early Times to the Nineteenth Century, ed. Peter H. Lee. (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1981), 4
This letter, which Petrarca (1304–1374) never finished, represents something of an autobiographical obituary. In it he offers a summary of his life and achievements, which, interestingly, does not include the vernacular love poetry. He wanted above all to be remembered as a scholar, a lover of classical antiquity, and a Latin poet—above all, as the author of the (paralyzingly dull) epic poem Africa, about the Roman general Scipio Africanus. Petrarca carries his life story as far forward as 1341; he left no notes about what he intended to include in the presumed second half of the letter.
Translation by Clifford R. Backman
Usama Ibn Mundiqh
A scholar, a gentleman, and a warrior, Usama (1095–1187) had ample opportunity to meet Crusader forces in person on the battlefield and in civilian life. After a distinguished military career, he became a consultant and advisor to Saladin in 1174, and he oversaw the surrender of Beirut, as its governor, to Crusader forces. Basking in Saladin’s favor, Usama became the center of attention in Damascus. He began a memoir describing the various peoples whom he had encountered during his long and adventurous life. His observations are often humorous, sometimes baffling, but always imbued with curiosity about people whose customs are strange—and intriguing.
An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades: Memoirs of Usāmah ibn-Munqidh, trans. Philip K. Hitti (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), 160–161, 162–163, and 164–165.
The Nihon Shoki is the first official history of Japan. It draws on numerous sources, including Chinese histories, clan histories, and the accounts of religious authorities. While it parallels the Kojiki in describing the ancient and mythological origins of Japan, it continues the narrative far beyond the Kojiki into the recent past, specifically the reign of the Empress Jitō (686–697). This particular story concerns the eleventh emperor of Japan, Suinin, but it differs from the Kojiki in certain key details, and probably reflects the values of the eighth century rather than its ostensible setting (the first century CE).
“The Empress and Her Brother Prince Sahobiko,” from Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600, ed. Haruo Shirane (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 47–49.
Around 500 CE, a wave of immigrants and cultural influence from the Korean kingdom of Paekche entered Japan from the southwest, bringing with it new technology for metal weapons. The influx stimulated the rise of a new Japanese state, the Kingdom of Yamato, centered on modern-day Osaka, and further militarized the aristocratic clans. The key elements of this wave of cultural borrowing were Chinese writing, Confucianism (the first Confucian scholar came to Yamato in 513), and Buddhism. Buddhism arrived in force in 552 when Paekche sent an image of the Buddha, some scriptures, and a Buddhist priest to the Yamato court with which it was allied. All these elements entered at the instigation of the Yamato kings, who sought to use them as tools to strengthen and centralize their rule against the resistance of the clan-based aristocracy.
This process heightened in the reign of the Empress Suiko (r. 592–628) and her regent Prince Shotoku (573–621). Prince Shotoku was a devout Buddhist who consciously imported T’ang Chinese models of government in reaction to the breakdown of the Paekche alliance and growing armed aristocratic resistance. He wrote a constitution for the Japanese government that was largely Confucian in its principles but the second article of which required devotion to Buddhism on the part of Japan’s rulers. Finally, a coup against Shotoku and his Soga clan brought to power Kotoku Tenno, or “The Divine Emperor” Kotoku, in 645. His reforms, sponsored by Confucians and Buddhists at the Imperial Court, represent the true birth of the Japanese imperial government and the incorporation of the clans and their aristocrats into centralized rule.
This history is recounted in the Nihongi, a semiofficial history of Yamato Japan completed in 720. It emphasized both the divine origins of the imperial family and the part of Buddhism in the construction of the imperial system. The establishment of Buddhism in Japan, then, was inseparable from the emergence of centralized, imperial authority, and the following source deals with the twinned processes by which imperial authority and Buddhism were promoted. Moreover, it demonstrates that Buddhism and Shintoism could coexist, each contributing to the authority and legitimacy of the emperor, as Shinto elements appear in the text in the references to gods, plagues, and demons.
W. G. Ashton, “Nihongi: Chronicle of Japan from the Earliest Times to AD 697,” Transactions and Proceedings of the Japan Society, London, supplement i (1896).
Abu Raihan is often known in the West by his westernized name, Alberuni. Early in life, Alberuni gained a reputation as a scholar, writer, and scientist, and served as an advisor for local princes. Around 1030 C.E., he traveled to India, and wrote with an objective observer's sensibilities about this foreign land. Writing as a Muslim, Alberuni does not hesitate to point out things he dislikes about India or its inhabitants; at the same time, however, he is quick to praise things he likes.
Alberuni's India. Edited by Edward C. Sachau. (Delhi: S. Chand and Co., 1934)
The author of this personal essay was Yi Kyu-bo (1168 – 1241), a poet, essayist, and critic in the Koryo kingdom of Korea. He was also a high-ranking civil servant, who passed the civil-service examination required for government service. The life of Yi Kyu-bo reflects the extent to which Koryo modeled itself on Tang / Song China. Yi Kyu-bo studied and wrote in Chinese, worked in a state organized along Confucian principles, and created literary works that were infused with both Confucian and Daoist principles.
Yi Kyu-bo. “On Demolishing the Earthen Chamber,” from Anthology of Korean Literature: From Early Times to the Nineteenth Century, ed. Peter H. Lee. (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1981), 61-62.