Monday, November 19, 2018


Julian Yolles, Jessica Weiss, Medieval Latin Lives of Muhammad. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 51. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018. Pp. xli, 664. ISBN 9780674980730. $29.99.

Reviewed by Scott G. Bruce, Fordham University (

Version at BMCR home site


Since its inception in 2012, the Latin series of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library has published over fifty volumes of medieval Latin texts ranging from well-known classics like The Rule of Benedict and Carmina Burana to lesser known satires and beast fables. A small number of these volumes have been thematic anthologies of shorter works curated by a modern editor, like Peter Walsch's One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas.1 The volume under review is another such anthology. It presents nine medieval Latin accounts of the life of Muhammad written between the ninth and the thirteenth centuries. Taken together, these accounts allow the reader to trace the development of the depiction of Muhammad and his role as the prophet of Islam among western readers. These invectives were primarily polemical in purpose. Long after medieval Christians had direct access to accurate knowledge of Islam, they nonetheless persisted in promoting falsehoods about the religion and its prophet. As this volume shows, stories about Mohammad grew in the telling, but certain elements of the narrative, like the role of an evil monk or hermit in supporting the prophet in his youth, were tenacious throughout this literary tradition.

The earliest accounts of Muhammad's life in Latin originated in Spain and Byzantium before the close of the first millennium. The first two texts in the volume are examples of the use of polemic as resistance to Islam in the context of the persecution of Christians on the Iberian Peninsula. Writing about the virtues of the martyrs of Córdoba, a cleric named Eulogius composed the first short account of Muhammad's life to survive in Latin. Several features of his story, including the prophet's insatiable lust and the consumption of his corpse by animals, became tropes in later polemical accounts of his life. In an obscure story from tenth-century Spain known as the Tultusceptru from the Book of Lord Metobius, Mohammad was originally a Christian monk named Ozim. While on a missionary journey, he was beguiled by an angel of temptation, who taught him incantations for summoning demons that loosely resemble the Muslim call to prayer. Much more influential than these Spanish texts was the Greek world chronicle of the Byzantine monk Theophanes (ca. 760-818 CE), which circulated in Latin by the end of the ninth century. This account introduced the character of the false monk (pseudomonachus) as a witness to the authenticity of Muhammad's visions and the notion that the prophet suffered from epilepsy.

A flowering of verse renderings of the life of Muhammad appeared in the age of the early crusades, including 1149 lines of elegiac couplets written in the late eleventh century by Embrico of Mainz and 1090 lines of elegiac couplets composed in the mid-twelfth century by Walter of Compiègne. Embrico's account relates how a deceiving magician raised up a former slave named Mammutius as the prophet of a new religion. He drew on earlier traditions to depict Mammutius as an epileptic. In this tradition, the prophet is eaten by pigs, which explains to Christian readers why Muslims do not eat pork. The story is replete with false miracles performed by the magician and at the tomb of Mammutius, which led John Tolan to characterize the poem as a work of "anti-hagiography."2 Walter's poem relates similar themes, but he jettisons Embrico's magician to present Muhammad as an autonomous agent of his own religious agenda, aided only in part by a Christian hermit who foretells his coming. The editors' suggestion that "the poem may be understood as a sort of elegiac comedy and akin to Old French fabliaux" (p. xvii) requires further elaboration to substantiate, especially given the monastic context of its composition. Contemporary with Walter's poem was a prose account of the life of Muhammad by a pilgrim named Adelphus, who allegedly heard the story in Antioch on his return to the west from Jerusalem. In this story, the fifth-century heresiarch Nestorius plays the role usually attributed to a Christian monk or hermit in fostering the young prophet.

The centerpiece of the volume (comprising pp. 217-537, a book in its own right) is the Apology of al-Kindī, a refutation of Islam couched as an exchange of letters between a Muslim and a Christian. Written in Arabic in the ninth century, this work was part of the dossier of Muslim religious texts rendered into Latin by the team of translators assembled in the early 1140s by Abbot Peter the Venerable of Cluny. The inclusion of this very long text in a collection devoted to Latin accounts of Muhammad's life struck me as slightly odd. While portions of it do, in fact, draw on polemical traditions about the life of Muhammad to discredit the authority of his teaching (as does Peter the Venerable's treatise against Islam, written in the mid-1150s), much of the sprawling Apology is not directly related to the prophet's life at all.3 In particular, the Muslim interlocutor spends much of his time explaining the fundamental tenets of Islam and refuting core doctrines of the Christian faith, which, while interesting, bear little affinity with the other texts in this anthology.

The volume concludes with two short, anonymous texts from the later Middle Ages: The Book of Nicholas and Where Wicked Muhammad Came From. Both of these works originated in Dominican circles in the thirteenth century. The first text offers a rare divergence from the polemic tradition by depicting Muhammad as a late antique Christian missionary named Nicholas, who founded a new religion when his ambitions to become the bishop of Rome were thwarted. As the editors note, "the purpose of the Book of Nicholas was not to provide accurate information on Islam, but to satirize the papal Curia" (p. xxvii). The second text returns to the tradition of time-honored invective. In this work, an exiled Christian named Nicholas takes as his disciple a young man named Maurus ("Moor"), who carries on his master's nefarious plans after his death. Maurus, in turn, tutors the young Muhammad, whose lust for a married Jewish woman leads to his demise. While drawing on earlier tropes about the prophet, neither of these obscure texts exercised any influence in the western polemical tradition about Islam.

The editors of the Medieval Latin Lives of Muhammad have done a good job of assembling a diverse array of polemical Latin accounts of the life of the prophet. The volume has all of the positive aspects of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series as a whole: a handsome appearance, superior production quality, and a reasonable price. It also shares the primary shortcoming of the series: a laconic introduction. The decision to exclude a translation of Bonaventure of Siena's 1264 Latin version of a story about Muhammad's ascension known as the Liber scalae Machometi struck me as a missed opportunity (see p. xl, n. 80). Even so, scholars and students with an interest in Christian-Islamic relations and religious polemic will find much food for thought in this volume.


1.   See my review in BMCR 2013.02.07.
2.   John Tolan, "Anti-Hagiography: Embrico of Mainz's Vita Mahumeti," Journal of Medieval History 22 (1996): 25-41.
3.   Peter the Venerable's Contra sectam Sarracenorum has recently been translated into English by Irven Resnick in Peter the Venerable: Writings against the Saracens (Washington, D.C., 2016), pp. 51-161; and discussed in Scott G. Bruce, Cluny and the Muslims of La Garde-Freinet: Hagiography and the Problem of Islam in Medieval Europe (Ithaca and London, 2016), pp. 93-98.

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