Month: February 2022 (Page 1 of 6)

Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: The Ghuzz

Situated between the river Yanghindi and the city Jit, Ibn Fadlan encounters “The Ghuzz Turks.” He calls them nomads, rightly so considering he does not give the location where he meets them a name. He is mainly focused on culture and practices, rather than the people themselves or the environment and buildings. He mentions that the Ghuzz live in tents, but only when he explained the nomad way of life. One of the first insights on the Ghuzz Fadlan gives is their lack of God. Fadlan reports, “they live in poverty, like wandering asses. They do not worship God, nor do they have recourse to reason.” From the start of his account of the Ghuzz, Fadlan’s distain for the culture is obvious and centered around their lack of worship.  

Despite his disdain for their Godlessness, Fadlan regards the Turks as having very good hospitality. He says that “no Muslim can cross their country without having made friends with one of them with whom he stays and to whom he brings gifts from Islam.” He even reports that the Turks value their hospitality so much so that if a guest dies their host, is subsequently responsible for their death. It is interesting how Fadlan emphasizes that the Ghuzz, who are apparently Godless, favor specifically Muslims who “cross their country.” Fadlan is a devote Muslim and notorious for attempting to convert those he meets on his travels. This emphasis of the kindness of Muslim guests who bring their hosts “gifts from the lands of Islam,” is most likely an exaggerated interpretation of Fadlan’s to paint those who worship Islam in a good light and highlight the areas susceptibility to conversion for his audience. 

While Fadlan describes the Ghuzz Turks as hospitable people, he does not negate accounting all their ‘unfavorable’ customs. He highlights many customs that would be considered ‘sinful’ or ‘unclean’ by Fadlan’s readers. For example, the “taboo on washing,” “filth and immodesty,” “horse sacrifices,” and plucked “facial hair.” Not only does Fadlan highlight the customs that oppose Islam ones, but he also addresses the faulty of their legal system. He explains that when “pederasty” is committed both parties must be put to death or the perpetrating party must pay a ransom. Highlighting he inequity of the two punishments for the same crime and the arbitrariness of deciding between the two, reinforces Fadlan’s idea that the Ghuzz people are uncivilized and in need of conversion. 

Fadlan talks little about specific people in the Ghuzz, however he does talk about a king named Inal the Younger. He aptly calls the section, “A fragile conversion.” When Inal the Younger converted, his people, according to Fadlan, said to him, “If you become Muslim, you will no longer be our leader.” So Inal the Younger renounced Islam. Upon Fadlan’s and Inal’s next encounter with each other, Fadlan showers Inal with gifts and Inal gets on the floor and “prostrated himself before” Fadlan. Also, in this section Fadlan notes that his caravan came across an “ugly man, wretched looking… really ignoble,” when they were leaving Inal the Younger. Fadlan accounts that he gave the man a piece of bread in order to curb the man’s “violent cloudburst.” Fadlan’s record of events portray Muslims as very generous and benevolent people, and the Ghuzz as well-meaning but unknowledgeable and pitiful. Regadless if the events are true or not, the picture Fadlan painted of the Ghuzz would prompt a readers to believe these people are in need of saving by way of religion, specifically Islam. 

caspersen 2

The Book of Margery Kempe by Margery Kempe (trans. BA Windeatt) going to Jermusalem, at Jerusalem, and after
Kempe’s Reflections on Jerusalem and What It took Her to get there


Kempe is still focused on the mistreatment she receives from the men in her travelling group and the consequences of how she deals with her emotions. She discusses her helplessness in stopping her tantrums during this chapter also (Kempe 102-107). As for the bullying she has to deal with,  she claims to have gotten banned from eating dinner with those she is traveling with and that they refused to buy her the bedding she required for the ship ride to Jerusalem (Kempe 102); in defiance of this message telling her to depart from their group, Kempe buys her own bedding and tells the group plainly that she will join them (Kempe 102) Adding to that, she is very focused on God and doesn’t miss his message to not take the ship to Jerusalm that she was scheduled to (Kempe 102). Kempe documents that she was riding a donkey when she caught sight of Jerusalem. Kempe does not fail to give two pilgrims from Germany credit for helping her make sure that she didn’t fall off her donkey when her emotions took over.  During her time in Jerusalem, Kempe took a 24-hour trip to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Kempe 103-104. 102-107). At the end of Chapter 28, Kempe mocks people who judge her harshly for the way she cries because of her sadness for Christ. She refers to her bullies as not  religious and therefore horrible .Her account of whom she is referring to is so specific that it makes me wonder if she was describing someone she knew without naming them. She also implies that it is okay for people to die after being accussed of crimes that they did not commit because of their wongdoings, which I find very disturbing. Kempe seems to only have empathy for Christ. (Kempe 106-107)

I believe that we can infer that Kempe’s medieval culture did not place the emphasis of treating people well that ours does. I believe this really stands out when Kempe doesn’t describe anyone coming to her defense and sticking up for her when her sheet is stollen or when the whole group refuses to get her sheets (Kempe 102, 102-107). It’s actually quite ironic because her companions are supposed to be going on a trip in order to celebrate and practice a religion that demands kindness.Travelling by donkey sounds awesome to me given the adorable donkey I meet at farm camp one summer. Getting to ride a donkey is not something I would consider usual today; however, it would be hard to imagine that Kempe was surprised by her opportunity to ride a donkey (Kempe 103). I am struggling to understand how Kempe’s religious feelings when she got back to England grew stronger over time. It seems like it would have been the other way around as more time since the pilgrimage would make the memories more vague (Kempe 105, 103-105). I believe that Kempe’s purpose for recording this piece of writing is to use it as a way of interacting with her own thoughts and feelings. This is because of the anger and resentment her tone gives off. This would mean that she was not necessarily writing to anybody, but rather for herself. (Kempe 107, 102-107)


Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe, trans. BA Windeatt. Chapter 28. Penguin Books, 1985, 102-107.

The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Jerusalem

In this section of the Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, he passes through the historic and diverse place that is Jerusalem. Upon arriving, our author notes on the many different peoples that he defines as “Mohammedans [Muslims] … Jacobites, Syrians, Greeks, Georgians, and Franks” (p. 34). The mere mention of all these peoples raises a multitude of questions, particularly regarding the Franks given their distance and apparent sizable presence in this far-away city, however he does not seem to be terribly troubled with learning any more about these peoples. Instead, Benjamin of Tudela focuses on the people most akin to him, the Jews.

There is something to be said about knowing no matter where you go, you can always find some of your kin.

The further from Europe he journeys, it appears Jews find themselves in improving conditions. Here, the community is built around the most significant structure in the city, the Tower of David. Not only is there local Jewish heritage with this tower, but it is upkept by the “Mohammedans”, indicating a positive relationship between the Muslims and Jews of Jerusalem (p. 35)

Christians, too also seem well-represented in the city. Upon Mount Zion, a hill just beyond the walled Jerusalem, there is “a place of worship belonging to the Christians,” (p. 37). By this account, the spiritual presence of Christianity also appears to be strong. Once, the church upon Mount Zion had a wall cave in. While under renovation, two workers attempted to access the tombs of the old kings in search of wealth, but when they tried to step in a great wind pushed them out and onto the ground, and “they fell to the ground like dead men, and there they lay until evening,” (p. 39).

Tales like this are likely nothing more than that — just tales. However, it is interesting to note that Benjamin of Tudela cares to entertain such tales. He is clearly entrenched in his faith, as that which relates to his heritage is what he writes most about, but he chooses to acknowledge a miracle that occurred at a Christian church. This is far from pantheism or polytheism, but it does indicate a belief that other religions are not merely tolerated but seen as valid and somewhat true from the perspective from outsiders to the religion. Of course, those buried there were King David and his descendants, and the House of David is significant in Judaism as well, so this may explain some of the willingness to accept this miracle. The point still stands, though, that it occurred at a Christian, not Jewish place of worship.

It is a common thread through the writings of Benjamin of Tudela that he completely ignores the practicalities of travel. The most we get are distances, which are not measured in concrete units but in parasangs, a measure of distance similar to leagues kept by measuring time on foot. This account is hard to justify as being a guide for others, but in some part appears to be an account of the Jews of the world. They are always his greatest focus no matter where he goes, and he often notes their dwelling-places, indicating perhaps that where he would spend his days and nights whil stopped in these cities.

The Travels of Marco Polo: Kashmir

Marco Polo travels “some seven days’ journey to the south-east” (78) from Pashai and arrives in Kashmir. Polo mentions that he will speak of India in depth later in his travel narrative, so it is interesting to note what Polo describes to his readers, when giving a general description of Kashmir.

The first characteristic that Polo notes about Kashmir is the belief system of the Kasmiri people, insinuating that religion is a strong aspect that Polo finds important to his travels. He notes in depth that the Kashmiri are “idolaters” (78), or individuals who worship idols of their god or gods, and practice strange and amazing magic. It is interesting however to apply the concept of magic on a religion that Polo is not a part of or deeply familiar with, because that conceptualizes the religion is a Eurocentric way, as this “magic” that Polo describes could be something different within the religion. Polo does not go into depth of the sort of idols that the Kashmiri people worship, but instead repeat and emphasize that “[the Kashmiri people] accomplish such marvels by magic and craft that no one who has not seen them could believe them” (78). This seems to align with the idea that Marco Polo is writing to entertain, so to play up on the parts of exoticism and magic would assist in the entertainment purpose.

Another characteristic that Marco Polo goes into depth about are the Kashmiri people; Polo goes into depth about their looks, diet, preferences to the weather, etc. The large focus on people was interesting to read about, since Polo seems to focus on marvels and miracles more than anything. Polo interestingly states “[t]he inhabitants are brown-skinned and thin; the women are very beautiful with such beauty as goes with a brown skin” (78). Polo is making a distinction between beauty standards and emphasizes that the standard for beauty for light-skinned women and brown-skinned women are different. This complicates and shines light onto the way beauty functions in the Middle Ages, because it seems to be that Polo finds these women beautiful, but only in a way that beauty functions for women of color, whatever that may be.

Lastly, Polo once again focuses on the idea of idolatry and asserts that “they live to a great age; and this avoidance of sin is all exercised for love of their idols (79). The sheer repetition of the concept behind the Kashmiri belief system also emphasizes that this is not a concept that is readily practiced where Polo is from and he seems to be othering the Kashmiri to an extent, but more accurately diminishing their entire belief to a simple concept of idols. I think it was curious to see that Kashmir was described heavily by their belief system and their independence, which Polo mentions in the section straight after his description of the Kashmiri. This is because Kashmir today is still a country that places large important on its independence. It was also interesting to read as a modern reader specifically due to the tensions that Islam and Hindisum have in the country, which is drastically different to the central and strong belief the Kashmiri people had in the past.

The Wanderings of Felix Fabri: Rama

Felix Fabri and his group of pilgrims arrived in Rama on the ninth day of July. I believe that they stayed in Rama for about eleven days according to Fabri’s log. Fabri speaks a lot of Rama prior to their arrival into the city. This is primarily in relation to the Governor of Rama and making an agreement with him to keep them safe from the Saracens and the Morse. When Fabri and the rest of his group arrive at Rama, Fabri begins by describing the beauty of the land around it. He describes the beautiful mountains and valleys and the land and bodies of water in the local area as a very beautiful place. He also goes on to say how when they are arriving close to the city, how they have to get off of their asses and leave them at the gate when they arrived. Fabri also describes how they were not allowed to ride through the city during the day on their asses and as a result had to carry their bags and leave their asses at the gate. Fabri also speaks about how Rama was known by Fabri and his group to have Saracens and Morse people near by who would occasionally enter into the city. As a result, one of the requests that Fabri had for the Governor of Rama was for protection from the Saracens and Morse people because they were simply passing through the city in while on their way to Jerusalem. While Fabri did not spare very much time describing the people of Rama, he did talk about the religious significance of Rama as well as the area around it. He also went on to list the articles that the pilgrims in his group were required to follow. When Fabri did describe a people or cultural group while in Rama, he spoke about the Saracen people. Fabri describes them are wandering desert residing people who are quick to violence and who do not hold many strong morals. Fabri describes the Saracen people in a very negative light and speaks of them as if talking about a wild and vicious animal that might attack him at any moment. It is very clear that Fabri and his group of Christians (Catholic I would assume) did not get along with the Saracen people in any degree. In my opinion this shows that religion played a very big part in that era and was one of the primary ways of distinguishing people groups who did not come from set countries at that time. It is also assumed by me from this information that it would have been around that time (give or take a hundred years) that religions started to become more competitive over believers and forced conversion started to become a big deal. When Fabri describes the city of Rama, I found it very interesting that he specifically spoke about having to pass through a small door into the city of Rama. The fact that he spoke about it led me to believe that that might not have been very common practice in that time period and as a result was notable even to Fabri. I also found it very interesting that Fabri spoke more about the religious attributes of an area and about why he did not trust people groups who were not Christian to the degree that he was, to be very interesting. When the Saracen people surrounded Rama and Fabri and his group were held there by the people, Fabri seems to be surprised regarding the prayer practices of the Muslim Saracen people. This is primarily expressed when he compares the fact that they pray immediately upon waking while he and his Christian group do not. This, to me at least, seems to allude to the possibility that while Fabri and his group do not agree and are in opposition with the Saracen people, that they are possible ignorant of the beliefs and practices of those same people whom they hate. In essence, that they hate the people that they know little to nothing about and act on that hatred and ignorance without taking the time to actually see the other group as people who happen to be different in background and beliefs.  

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