Trickster Travels: A 16th-Century Muslim between Worlds 
by Natalie Zemon Davis.
Faber, 448 pp., £20, January 2007, 978 0 571 20256 0
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At a seance in Hampstead in June 1914, W.B. Yeats was contacted by a spirit guide, who announced that he was Leo Africanus and professed to be affronted that the poet hadn’t heard of him. Over the next seven years, a curious relationship developed between Yeats and the daimon, who presented himself as Yeats’s opposite. Yeats, who saw himself as cautious and sedentary, discovered that Leo was bold and adventurous. A letter from ‘Leo’ to Yeats begins: ‘In my life I travelled over much of the known earth. I . . . was often in danger, & all but always in solitude, & became hard and keen like a hunting animal.’ Here Leo’s daimon is adapting and echoing the words of John Pory, who in 1600 published an English translation of the historical Leo’s La Descrittione dell’ Africa: ‘How many desolate cold mountains and huge drie, and barren deserts passed he? How often was he in hazard to have been captived, or to have had his throte cut by the prowling Arabians, and wild Mores? And how hardly manie times escaped he the Lyons greedie mouth and the devouring iawes of the Crocodile?’

Yeats can’t not have heard of Leo, one of the most famous geographers of the Renaissance. The much esteemed 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica had an entry about him in which he was described as, among other things, a poet, and Pory’s translation had been reissued by the Hakluyt Society in 1896. Al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan, as Leo was first named, was born in Muslim Granada a few years before the city fell to the armies of Aragon and Castile in 1492. He grew up in Fez and, after some years working as a notary to a hospital, was sent by the Watassid sultan of Fez on various diplomatic missions to African rulers. In 1518, on his way back from Cairo, his ship was intercepted by Christian pirates and he was brought as a captive to Rome. There, he converted to Christianity at the hands of Pope Leo X and was baptised as Joannes Leo. In Rome he taught Arabic to the great Hebraist Cardinal Aegidius of Viterbo, and worked with the Jewish physician and translator Jacob Mantino on an unfinished Latin-Arabic-Hebrew vocabulary. Leo seems to have written several books, though most have not survived. His most important work was certainly The Description of Africa, completed in 1526.

Leo’s geography deals chiefly with Islamised North Africa and he provides a particularly detailed account of the buildings, population and religious and cultural practices of Fez. The subsequent printing of this work in 1550, in Giovanni Batista Ramusio’s compendium of travel writings, Navigazioni e Viaggi, was a turning point in European knowledge of Africa. Western writers, drawing on the work of Pliny the Elder, Strabo and other classical sources, had tended to present Africa as a wasteland, sparsely populated by savages and wild beasts. Leo’s account of North Africa filled what had mostly been a terra incognita with cities (in the 16th century, Fez had a larger population than Rome), universities (or madrasas) and villages. Now the wasteland of savages and wild beasts was shifted further south to sub-Saharan Africa. Leo’s information about places south of Timbuktu was slight and unreliable.

Besides providing a verbal map of the Maghreb and Egypt, the chief importance of The Description of Africa lay in its numerous references to Arabic sources. These served as a guide to what was important in Arabic literature, and provided a shortlist of candidates for translation that was of vital importance to Orientalists and manuscript collectors in the centuries that followed. Al-Idrisi’s 12th-century geography was cited by Leo and then translated into Latin in 1619, just as the notoriously difficult poem by the 12th-century alchemist and poet al-Tughrai, ‘The Verses Rhyming in lam of the Non-Arabs’, was translated by the 17th-century Orientalist Edward Pococke. Perhaps the most famous Arab author to be mentioned by Leo was al-Hariri, and in the next century the Dutch scholar Erpenius went on to translate the elaborate prose of the first chapter of al-Hariri’s Maqamat. In each chapter of this, the fictional character Abu Zayd, a learnedly fluent and plausible rogue who is often in disguise, talks himself out of trouble or into a free lunch. The literary information provided by The Description of Africa was supplemented by Leo’s De Viris quibusdam Illustribus apud Arabes, a biographical dictionary that was put into print in 1664 by the Swiss theologian and Arabist Johann Hottinger. The illustrious men covered included al-Razi, al-Idrisi, al-Tughrai, Ibn Rushd (or Averroes), Ibn Sina (or Avicenna), al-Farabi and al-Ghazali, as well as a cluster of eminent Jews, such as Maimonides.

But Leo’s literary afterlife is not Natalie Zemon Davis’s chief concern. Davis has a considerable reputation in the field of early modern history. She has tended to specialise in cultural history and marginal subjects (or at least subjects that have hitherto been regarded as marginal): see the essays included in Society and Culture in Early Modern France (1975) and Women on the Margins: Three 17th-Century Lives (1995). She has also tended to work with micro-histories, rather than offering panoramic surveys. The Return of Martin Guerre (1983) is a study of a man who impersonated a woman’s husband thought to have been killed in the wars, and of how the impersonation affected a small French village in the 16th century. The bogus Martin Guerre was an obscure figure until Davis – together with the film director Daniel Vigne and the actor Gérard Depardieu – made him famous. Her reconstruction of the story of the impersonation and its acceptance by the woman owed almost as much to speculation as it did to written evidence.

Trickster Travels is another micro-history which relies on conjecture. It presents Leo as a marginal figure, even though he was in some sense a member of first one elite and then another. Most modern scholars have written about Leo Africanus, but Davis prefers to call him al-Wazzan when he is in Morocco and Yuhanna al-Asad (Arabic for John the Lion) when in Italy. He serves her as a tracking recorder of the Mediterranean world in the early 16th century. In trying to follow Leo’s career, we find ourselves exploring the culture and politics of contemporary North Africa and Europe, each continent in turn raised as a mirror to the other.

In A Distant Mirror (1978), Barbara Tuchman did something similar, using the career of the French nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy to shed light on the history of Western Europe in the 14th century. But we know about Enguerrand de Coucy from Froissart and other sources. Leo, by contrast, slips through life in both Islamic and Christian lands scarcely noticed by his contemporaries. We know about his early life as a Muslim only from what he tells us about himself. If he studied at the famous Qarawiyyin Mosque in Fez, it has gone unrecorded. His diplomatic mission to Cairo was not remarked by others. Indeed, we know so little about him that some scholars have speculated that he never existed and that his great work was written by a team of European scholars working under a joint pseudonym – but no one who has read The Description of Africa carefully can give that theory any credence.

If we stuck to the facts about Leo we would have an eight-page book. Trickster Travels is a work written in the conditional, dubitative, hypothetical and presumptive moods. For example, this is Davis on Leo’s married life in Fez:

We can imagine al-Wazzan approving the cooking, sewing and spinning that he wrote was expected from a good Fez wife. We can imagine him listening to her tell what she had seen from the decorated terrace on the roof of her house, the female space to which she and other women in the household repaired from time to time. We can imagine him on hot days bathing in the pools around the interior fountains in their house, as did his wife and children – a memory he carried with him years later. We can imagine him watching his wife garb herself for going out to the streets as he himself described the custom at Fez – her golden bejewelled earrings and bracelets well hidden under a veil and her face covered with a cloth with space only for her eyes.

In fact, we don’t know whether he was married or not, though it is most probable that he was.

And this is Davis introducing a speculative but entirely plausible account of Leo’s attitudes to scholarship, friendship and sex during his second life in Rome:

Let us ask what might have attracted Yuhanna al-Asad to his life in Rome. What features of Christianity might have appealed to him or aroused his curiosity, at least for a time? What rewards might he have found, at least for a time, in the people whom he met, the circles he frequented, the friendships – perhaps intimacies – he formed, the sights that he saw in Renaissance Italy? What might he have wanted to explore about people in the world outside Africa and, indeed, about himself?

There are at least as many may-have-beens in her account of Leo Africanus as there were in her retelling of the story of Martin Guerre.

Most of what we know about his life and attitudes comes from The Description of Africa. One of the most interesting features of the book, to which Davis, in common with her predecessors, pays too little attention, is the influence on it of the writings of the 14th-century North African philosopher-historian Ibn Khaldun. Ibn Khaldun wrote copiously about the rise and fall of Muslim dynasties in North Africa and sought to elaborate a philosophy of world history based on his observations about their cyclical rise and fall. Two minor examples will show just how he influenced Leo. Davis writes of Leo’s attitude to Africa’s past:

There is always a note of regret in his mention of the buildings, walls and dwellings ruined and populations slaughtered in war, whether during the Arab conquest of Christian Carthage, the Kharijite Berbers’ revolts in the name of Islam against the caliphs, the struggles between Almohad sultans and upcoming Marinids, or the Portuguese seizure of Morocco’s coastal towns. Ruins and depopulated towns, as he remembered them from his travels, evoke loss, nostalgia, and the memory of tears.

In his Muqaddima, or ‘Prolegomena’ to his universal history, Ibn Khaldun returned again and again to the predominance of ruins in North Africa (such as Leptis Magna, Cyrene and Carthage). He was mostly inclined to blame them on the hostile attitude of the Berbers and nomadic Arabs towards urban life. But he also recognised that the Black Death of the 1340s had had a role in the wasting of North Africa: ‘It was as if the voice of existence in the world had called out for oblivion and restriction, and the world responded to its call. God inherits the earth and whomever is upon it.’

Ibn Khaldun was also obsessed by the za’iraja, and Leo followed him in this. The za’iraja, which Ibn Khaldun wrote about in considerable detail, was an occult calculating machine, marked with devices that combined the symbolism of letters with that of numbers. Ibn Khaldun described how this device worked, with the aid of an operational manual cast in cryptic verse, as ‘a remarkable technical procedure’. Leo for his part described the za’iraja as a kind of ‘cabala’. In Fez he had watched it being operated by a man called al-Marjani, who was a direct descendant of the al-Marjani who had instructed Ibn Khaldun in its workings. Like Ibn Khaldun, Leo was fascinated by the machine and its possible use for predicting the future, but, again like Ibn Khaldun, felt that the practice of divination infringed on the prerogatives of Allah and his prophets.

The za’iraja apart, Leo was, like Ibn Khaldun, hostile towards occultism and witchcraft. He denounced the witches of Fez as lesbians who sought to ensnare young women. His attitudes towards the various groupings of Muslims were those of a member of the strict North African Maliki school of religious law and ritual. He sneered at the rival Hanafi school in Egypt, claiming that they had made a religion of eating horsemeat. He denounced the excesses of certain Sufi groups, with their singing, dancing and lusting after beardless boys.

There are some curious silences in The Description of Africa. Although it was completed in 1526 and the Ottoman conquest of Egypt took place in 1517, Leo describes the territory as if it were still being ruled by the Mamluk sultan and his officers. Bartolomeu Diaz had rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, and in the decades that followed the Portuguese threatened Muslim control of the Red Sea and sought to blockade Egypt’s spice trade. But Leo never mentions this, any more than he mentions the absence of printed books in Africa, or the impact of firearms on warfare in the Mediterranean region.

Trickster Travels is a book about elites. As a young man, Leo was employed as a diplomat by the Wattasid court in Fez. Later, as a Christian, he must have consorted with the leading scholars in Rome, and Davis provides interesting vignettes of the ones he surely met, including the diplomat Alberto Pio, Prince of Carpi, the Maronite Christian Elias bar Abraham, the Jewish grammarian Elijah Levita and the historian Paolo Giovio, as well as suggesting the sorts of thing they must have discussed.

But it is above all a book about Leo’s silences regarding himself. It focuses on his avoidance of any discussion of his captivity and conversion, and the doubts one must have about the sincerity of that conversion. His account of the doctrines and practices of Islam in the Description is mostly objective: there is scarcely any of the hostile passion that one might expect to see on the part of someone recently converted to a better faith. Only at one point does he disparage Islam. This is when he attacks the claim that Alexander the Great was a prophet of God and claims that this is ‘a folly of Mucametto in the Koran’. Even this is not without ambiguity, since Leo has avoided giving the Prophet his proper name and may have deliberately chosen to denounce a garbled confection ‘Mucametto’ (perhaps the literary equivalent of crossing one’s fingers behind one’s back). In fact, the status of Alexander (or Dhul-Qarnein, the ‘Two-Horned One’) as one of the Koran’s prophets has been debated by Muslims for centuries.

In an early part of book, when discussing the virtues and vices of the Africans in general terms, Leo compares himself to an executioner who has been given the task of flogging a friend: he beats his friend as hard as he can, for that is his duty. Leo then tells the story of a bird that could live either on land or under the water. When the king of the birds demands taxes from him, the bird professes himself to be a creature of the water and retreats there. But when the king of the fishes, in turn, demands taxes, the bird declares that he belongs to the land. Leo confesses that, when his native Granada is criticised, he pretends to be North African, and vice versa. Davis suspects that some such slipperiness underlies his status as a Muslim who has become a Christian and who perhaps would return in his last years to Islam. She rightly draws attention to the importance in Islam of taqiyya, or the dissimulation of one’s religion in threatening circumstances. For Muslims faced with threats and coercion, as those in Spain often were in this period, Muslim jurists held that it was permissible to pretend to convert to Christianity. Davis also points to the importance of the trickster figure in Arabic literature: the fast-talking and deceitful Abu Zayd in al-Hariri’s Maqamat is the most famous example and was possibly Leo’s role model.

We don’t know which culture Leo Africanus chose in the end, or how, where or when he died. If he returned to Fez, this was not remarked on by his contemporaries. It is possible that he was killed when Charles V sacked Rome, or that he died in a shipwreck when trying to return to North Africa. It is most likely that Leo did return to Fez, because in 1532 Cardinal Aegidius suggested to the Orientalist scholar Johann Widmanstadt that he seek out Leo in North Africa and learn Arabic from him. But with that Leo vanishes from history, having made a remarkably insubstantial impression on the Muslims and Christians he lived among. Davis’s study of his life and times is thoughtful, subtle and wide-ranging. But her book has had the curious effect of making me realise that I now know less about Leo than I did when I started reading it.

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