Scholars from five different institutions, and both Christian and Muslim backgrounds, will gather in Cambridge tomorrow to look at medieval Islamic marriage and how it was viewed by contemporary Christian travellers and polemicists.
Although medieval authors often tend to exaggerate them, the differences in the doctrines and practices of marriage, an institution fundamental to the ways in which societies operate, do indeed represent one of the main disjunctures between medieval Islam and medieval Christianity."
In the late 15th century Anselm Adorno, an official of the Dukes of Burgundy, and his son John set out from the Belgian city of Bruges to the Holy Land. The purpose of their journey was to visit the places of Christ’s death and resurrection. Unlike many other pilgrims, who took the sea route from Venice to Jaffa, Anselm and John decided to travel through the predominantly Muslim countries of Tunisia and Egypt. It was here that they encountered for the first time in their lives Islamic culture, including local Islamic marriage customs. They recounted their observations with great detail in their travel account, written after their return.
An extract from this travelogue, translated from the original Latin, reads: "They get married in the following way: The man addresses the parents of the girl he wants to marry: If they agree with the marriage, the parents of both parties gather in the house of the girl, in order to rejoice and celebrate their children’s engagement. After the banquet the bride to be goes into a room, where she stands all naked, covering only her intimate parts. Her fiancé goes into the adjacent room, where he stands all naked too. There they look at each other through a little hole to see if they like each other. If they like each other, they immediately call for an official, called scyher, to write down the marriage agreement, called sedath.
"Once the agreement has been written down, they establish the wedding day (dies nupcialis). On that day in the morning, the bride and the groom enter at dawn a room where a bed is prepared for them. The mothers and the other women sit at the door and listen to all the words and motions of the groom and the bride. As soon as they realise that they have consummated their marriage, they immediately start shouting in a loud voice: ‘Rejoice, rejoice, the marriage is consummated’. When the bride and the groom hear these voices, they dress up and leave the room for the wedding feast."
This rare report of medieval Islamic wedding customs, as described by two European Christian travellers, will be just one of many discussion points at a workshop taking place this Friday at the University of Cambridge Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). The event brings together scholars from five institutions, including, besides several speakers from Cambridge itself, Alexander Schilling from Jena University, Charles Burnett from the Warburg Institute, Yossef Rapoport from Queen Mary, University of London and Khaled Younes from the University of Leiden.
The workshop has been organised by Pavel Blazek, a medievalist at the Institute of Philosophy, Czech Academy of Sciences, and currently Eurias Fellow at CRASSH and Clare Hall. "The aim of the workshop will be to look at medieval Western perceptions of Islamic marriage in Islam and to compare them with the social and legal realities of marriage in medieval Islamic societies as well as with the writings on the subject by medieval Muslim scholars and in Islamic literature," he said.
"My own research explores medieval western views of Islamic marriage by drawing on two types of historical sources. On the one hand, I look at medieval travelogues, written by Western Christian travellers to Islamic countries. They give us glimpses - often tantalisingly slight and vague - of the different marriage practices in Islamic countries they encounter and how they perceive them. Apart from the travelogues by Anselm and John Adorno, they include the fascinating accounts of Simone Sigoli, Gucci and Frescobaldi, three Florentines who visited Egypt in 1348, and the travelogue of Anselm of Harff, a knight from the lower Rhine region who in the years 1496-98 undertook, via Egypt, a kind of "super-pilgrimage" to the main Christian pilgrimage centres: the Holy Land, Rome and Santiago of Compostella.