Documenting the Existence of a Community of Letters in Late Medieval Spain and North Africa

Mohamad Ballan

Thanks to the generous support provided by the Division of Social Sciences Travel Grant, I have been able to spend much of the last year (July 2015 to May 2016) undertaking intensive research for my dissertation in Spain and Morocco. My dissertation project—entitled “Dynastic Ideology, Historical Writing and the Chancery in al-Andalus and the Maghrib: A Study of Itinerant Court Secretaries (Kuttāb) in the Late Medieval Islamic West”— explores the relationship between intellectual networks, historical writing and political power in fourteenth-century Iberia and North Africa. Due to the scope of my project and the nature of the sources that I work with, I spent significant time working with manuscripts in the Biblioteca Nacional de España (Madrid), the Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de El Escorial (El Escorial), the National Library of Morocco (Rabat), and the Royal Library (Rabat), as well as acquiring the necessary skills in codicology that have enabled me to more easily navigate and utilize the vast corpus of 14th-16th century manuscripts.

My engagement with over one hundred original manuscripts enabled me to confirm the existence of a distinct secretarial class, the kuttāb, which served the ruling authorities in both Spain and North Africa during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This class, which included major figures such as Ibn al-Khaṭīb (d. 1374), Ibn Marzūq (d. 1379), Ibn Riḍwān (d. 1382) ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406), Yaḥya ibn Khaldūn (d. 1378) and Ibn Zamrak (d. 1393) among its members, rose to prominence as secretaries, clerks, diplomats, and ministers within the royal courts and began to compete for power and influence with the traditional elites both military (umarā’) and religious (ulamā’). Many of the (largely unedited) manuscripts I worked with in Spain and Morocco demonstrated that in addition to their distinct profession, a common intellectual culture came to characterize these bureaucrats and ministers. This culture was largely underpinned by an interest in historical writing, epistolary, astrology, natural sciences, dialectic theology, mysticism and philosophy. Most significantly, I discovered a large body of letters exchanged between these aforementioned individuals. As a result, I have come to think about these professional and personal contacts between these court secretaries as an elaborate “community of letters” in which many of these intellectuals, although working for different dynasties, were in close communication and had clear influences upon one another. We might even call them an itinerant intellectual and administrative elite, for they traveled between courts for the purpose of obtaining information or knowledge, going into exile, performing diplomatic missions, or simply switching allegiances and placing their distinct skill-set at the disposal of a new sovereign.

The individuals belonging to this secretarial class were responsible for producing works across various genres, including political theory, poetry, philosophy, biographical dictionaries and historical chronicles. Not unlike their counterparts in the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragón during the same period, these chancery officials developed forms of historical writing that sought to complement and support the expansion of royal authority during the fourteenth century. My time working with manuscripts in Spain has underscored the importance of further interrogating this specific context of the production of knowledge by examining the relationship between the role of these itinerant secretaries and scholars as chancery officials and the distinct vision of politics and society that they articulated within their works. The texts I discovered in El Escorial, in particular, convinced me of the value of focusing on the life and works of Ibn al-Khaṭīb, the figure for whom we have the most surviving manuscripts, in order to engage with this question. I seek to underscore the interrelationship between circles of power and the production of historical knowledge in the fourteenth-century Islamic West by positioning the writings of this individual within the wider context of a broader intellectual network of scholars whose shared experiences, education and worldview were shaped by their profession (as chancery officials) on one hand and subsequently shaped their outlook on conceptions of kingship and governance on the other.

In addition to my valuable experience in the library, my research was further enriched by my extensive travels in Spain which brought me into contact with other academics (a modern “community of letters” in many ways). During my time in the country, I was able to work closely with leading Spanish researchers, including Maribel Fierro (a member of my dissertation committee), Amalia Zomeño, Mercedes García-Arenal and Eduardo Manzano Moreno, at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciónes Científicas (CSIC), Spain’s National Research Council. Furthermore, I also traveled to Andalucía where I was able to meet other students and scholars working on late medieval Spain and North Africa. My experience in Morocco was also quite fruitful since I was able to combine archival research with extensive weekend trips that afforded me the opportunity to visit many of the places that I study. In addition to helping me better understand the role of geography and appreciate the urban layout of these medieval centers, these weekend trips allowed me to document the extensive inscriptions across Morocco’s medieval mosques, palaces and colleges, thus encouraging me to think more carefully about the importance of material evidence as a source of medieval Islamic history. Overall, my year abroad was an enormous success because it enabled me to conduct extensive manuscript research relevant to my project while also bringing me into close contact with a community of scholars with whom I was able to engage in a fruitful and constructive exchange of ideas. I would like to thank the Division of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago for their enormous generosity and continued support, without which I would not have been able to complete this research.

Mohamad Ballan is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History.