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Medieval Empires and the Culture of Competition

Literary Duels at Islamic and Christian Courts

Samuel England

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Shows how the interactive, confrontational practice of courtly arts shaped imperial thought in the Middle Ages

A probing inquiry into medieval court struggles, this book shows the relationship between intellectual conflict and the geopolitics of empire. It examines the Persian Buyids’ takeover of the great Arab caliphate in Iraq, the counter-Crusade under Saladin, and the literature of sovereignty in Spain and Italy at the cusp of the Renaissance. The question of high culture—who best qualified as a poet, the function of race and religion in forming a courtier, what languages to use in which official ceremonies—drove much of medieval writing, and even policy itself. From the last moments of the Abbasid Empire, to the military campaign for Jerusalem, to the rise of Crusades literature in spoken Romance languages, authors and patrons took a competitive stance as a way to assert their place in a shifting imperial landscape.

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Note on Arabic Translations


Introduction: Courtly Gifts, Imperial Rewards

  1. "Baghdad is to Cities what the Master is to Mankind": The Rise of Vizier Culture
  2. The Sovereign and the Foreign: Creating Saladin in Arabic Literature of the Counter-Crusade
  3. Alfonso X: Poetry of Miracles and Domination
  4. Saladino Rinato: Spanish and Italian Courtly Fictions of Crusade

Conclusion: The Ministry of Culture


About the Author

Samuel England is Assistant Professor of Arabic at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has published articles in Mediterranean Studies and Middle Eastern Literatures.


Defines the relationship between poetry and politics by asking new questions, focusing on the semantic field of contest, and examining the explicit regulations, the 'rules of the art', and the way they intertwine with the political and legal projects that govern the circulation of power, from the chancery to the Empire. This comparative study will help us think anew the bigger competitions in the Mediterranean basin during the Middle Ages.

- Jesus R. Velasco, Columbia University

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