Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Samuel ibn Naghrīla: Spain’s Jewish Warrior-Poet

Part XXXIII in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by S.J. Pearce.You can find the rest of the special series here

This is Part I of a two-part article about the Jewish warrior-poet Samuel ibn Naghrīla; watch for Part II, coming out next week.

Note: If you like the poetry found in this article, it comes from a translation by Peter Cole titled The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain 950–1492. You can buy it on Amazon here.

The Hebrew poets of medieval Spain were the rap and hip-hop artists of their day.

In the public performances of their verse, often at the fanciest parties with the finest liquor, they declaimed their opinions on social and political issues. They imbued their work with bragging about their victories and lamenting their despairs. They praised themselves and their skills, caught beef with their peers, and did not let those rivalries die. They sampled the beats of the Arab poets working around them. And they irreversibly altered the Hebrew language in which they composed. They were complete badasses, they knew it, and they rhymed about it.

What they perhaps could never have anticipated was the extent to which their poetry would speak so directly to the concerns of readers a thousand years later. But reading with a modern eye, it is immediately clear that many of the struggles that medieval Hebrew poets faced over language choice and national identity — over how to belong — were strikingly modern in their character; and these themes poured out in their strikingly modern verse.

Like a King without a Crown

Prominent among these poets was Samuel ibn Naghrīla (d. 1055-6), who served as a vizier and general to the Muslim emir of Granada and was also the leader, or nagid, of that city’s Jewish community and the best of its poets. His combination of military and poetic prowess earned him the nickname “twice the vizier.”

His poetry covers topics from fatherhood and family to the battlefield to the value of healthy and pleasing foods. Some of his most significant poems were written to and about his beloved son Yehosef, who would succeed him as both the nagid and a government official in Granada. Those of Samuel’s own writings and those that tell his story from others’ perspectives that have survived the centuries demonstrate that he was deeply engaged with both Jewish and Muslim thinkers and cultural leaders of the day and with their ideas. His poetry is secular in nature but written in what medieval Jews considered to be the divine language — Hebrew — and drew often and strongly on biblical and other religious language, all the while adopting and remixing the rhyme and meter schemes of his Arabic-speaking Muslim counterparts.

A panoramic view of the city of Granada.

Born in the city of Córdoba, the seat of the collapsing Umayyad caliphate, Ibn Naghrīla relocated to the small kingdom of Granada ruled by ethnic Berber dynasty with origins in North Africa known as the Zirids. Samuel Ibn Naghrīla had served the Zirid emir of Granada Ḥabbūs ibn Bādīs until the emir’s death, at which time Ibn Naghrīla backed the ultimately successful of three candidates to succeed the throne, Ḥabbūs’ son Bādīs ibn Ḥabbūs, and retained his position at court.

Pharaoh at the Nile from a 14th century Haggadah; BL Hispano-Moresque Haggadah, (1300), Fol. 69.

One of the contenders for the throne who lost out was Bādīs’ cousin, Yaddayir, who remained a thorn in the side of the emirate of Granada. Following his political loss, Yaddayir led troops on behalf of the kingdom of Almería in a battle against Zirid forces led by Samuel at the town of Arjona. Following Samuel’s win, he composed a poem best known to English readers as “The War With Yaddayir.” In that poem, the prophetic voice of a victorious general describes the battle in biblical terms, giving his enemies the names of the biblical enemies of the Israelites:

I trust in the Lord who humbled my foes in snares concealed for my footsteps

when the enemy came to the garrisoned city and slaughtered its vizier like a calf.

He was a foe in the line of my king —

and the evil of strangers pales beside the evil of kin.

Two of the Spanish princes were there, and the Zemarite troops, and they seized the city,

then advanced like a pestilence, destroying the fortress.

Later he describes the conclusion of the battle and the composition of a poem of praise, invoking the names of biblical musicians, poets, and prophets:

My friend, for me in my straits the Rock rose up,

therefore I offer these praises, my poem to the Lord:

He recognized fear of the foe in my heart and erased it.

So my song is sung to the healer: He ravaged my enemies with pain, erasing my own.

Someone objected: Who are you to pay homage?

I am, I answered, the David of my age!

He responded: Is Saul, too, with the prophets? And I told him:

The heir of Merari, Sitri, and Assir, Elkhanah, Mishael, Elzaphan, and Assaf!

How could a poem in my mouth be improper to the God who heals my wound?

When the poem was rediscovered in the modern period, readers of this poem argued that this co-identification of medieval Muslim enemies with biblical ones allowed Samuel to consolidate the two parts of his identity: as a Jewish community leader, and as a general to a Muslim prince. By, in effect, making the enemies of the Zirids the same as the enemies of the Israelites, Samuel was contending that every military action he took was as much a defense of his Jewish community as of the Islamic state he served: his poetry creates a unified identity from parts that might seem, at first blush, contradictory.

Embrace Your Contradictions ‘cause Nothing is Truer

The polysystemic nature of Samuel’s poetry shows that the Jews of medieval Spain were full participants in the local Arabo-Islamic culture, while still remaining devout in their faith; theirs was not a world of fractured identity but rather one that was greater than the sum of its parts.

This characteristic emerges not only in times of cultural flourishing and production, but also at moments of great tension; in the case of Ibn Naghrīla, even his disputes with intellectual and political foes demonstrate his integral place within the intellectual and social orbits of Zirid Granada. For example, the chronicler Sa‘id al-Andalusī placed Ibn Naghrīla at the end of a long line of historically important Jews living in Muslim lands. He wrote: “No-one in al-Andalus before him had such learning in the laws of the Jews and knowledge of how to use it and to defend it.”

In other cases, though, writers felt the need to make perfunctory negative comments about Samuel as a Jew before going on to praise him. Sometimes, they even criticized him in such a way that the praise was subtle, and only visible to people very familiar with the genre of writing. For example, one medieval historian described Samuel as “cursed” and noted that “God did not inform him of the right religion” before going on to praise his patience, temperament, knowledge, the education he provided to his son Joseph, and even his library. Cultural historian Ross Brann describes this description of Samuel as showing him to be “less a Jew than a Jew inscribed in the text, an emblem of an idealized dhimmī [non-Muslim monotheist whose religion is based upon a scripture, e.g. Christians and Jews, typically protected under Islam] who is a Muslim in all but name.” In other words, Samuel’s Jewishness functions as a kind of literary device without the author or reader focusing on him, individually, as a Jew.

Medieval Spain is sometimes called a “first-rate place” in the sense that F. Scott Fitzgerald used when he wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” That is to say, the history and culture of medieval Spain is always two things at once: Hebrew and Arabic, Jewish and Muslim, sacred and secular, poet and general, praise and curse. Even if those things seem contradictory to our modern eyes, the Spain of the Middle Ages was a place that allowed them to flourish together as one.

Death Penalty? No Fear!

Not all polemics and political disagreements in Samuel’s life were so polite nor so grounded in mutual respect. Samuel’s son Yehosef was the light of his life and some of his most famous poems were written to or about him—such as this one, which Samuel wrote to Yehosef from the battlefield:

Heart’s grief like sharp arrows—through me as never before,

though we’d met no resistance; then why this sorry?

I thought of Yehosef, my faithful, in my heart a continual wound,

for hearts understand what comes to their love across distance…


…Your illness disperses my sleep while others are resting,

and draws me away from tactics and law,

from briefings, and leading the people.

I’m sick with the service of kings who are ready only for war,

and life for a letter from your right hand, with news of your cure.

Two manuscript fragments that mention Joseph the Nagid. The main text of both is in Hebrew, but the marginal notes of the left are in Arabic. Cambridge University Library, T-S AS 153.95, and T-S 6J3.25.

But love for Yehosef was far from universal. As an adult, he became the tax collector for the Zirid state and carried out his duties with a heavy hand [Image C]. His tactics as tax collector prompted reactions against the Jewish community at large; it was not unheard of in Islamic Spain for the tax-man to be executed after carrying out his duties in too-heavy handed a manner, but in this case the backlash against him exceeded the norm. It ultimately led to a riot and massacre of between 300 and 400 Jews in the year 1066. Just as earlier polemicists had done with his father, Yehosef’s Jewishness was criticized. In the Islamic chronicles and other literary texts that describe his actions, Yehosef was often referred to, in disgust, as “the Jew!” This centralizes the idea that Yehosef’s Jewishness was a negative characteristic, one not vitiated by subsequent praise. Unlike his father, who was criticized, pro-forma, for being Jewish by Muslim writers who otherwise respected him, Yehosef’s Jewishness is portrayed as one of his many negative characteristics.

King 2.0

Although modern readers might understand both of these types of criticisms of Samuel and Yehosef as being anti-Semitic, the picture is somewhat more complicated than that. As other articles in this series have shown, there is a distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism: While anti-Semitism is a hatred of Jews as an inferior race, anti-Judaism treats Jews as a kind of metaphor for undesirable characteristics that are associated, through rhetoric, with Jews. It is a subtle distinction but an important one; in the latter case, hatred is an excuse, while in the former it is the cause. The historian David Nirenberg explains that anti-Judaism is a broader phenomenon than anti-Semitism and is not “simply an attitude toward Jews and their religion, but a way of critically engaging with the world.” Anti-Judaism takes negative characteristics ascribed to Jews in anti-Semitic discourse and broadens their reach, turning them into a short-hand for general inferiority.

Although modern readers might understand both of these types of criticisms of Samuel and Yehosef as being anti-Semitic, the picture is somewhat more complicated than that. As other articles in this series have shown, there is a distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism: While anti-Semitism is a hatred of Jews as an inferior race, anti-Judaism treats Jews as a kind of metaphor for undesirable characteristics. It is a subtle distinction but an important one; in the latter case hatred is an excuse while in the former it is the cause. Although different in character, antagonistic writing against both Samuel and Yehosef represents anti-Jewish rather than anti-Semitic rhetoric because it takes negative traits stereotypically associated with Jews (such as greed and profiteering from monetary transactions) and uses them to condemn a disliked individual rather than beginning from a position of hatred towards Jews as a lesser race. Samuel flourished in cultural production and politics, in his secular life and as Jew; yet the convivencia, the living-together-ness that is described for better and for worse as characterizing the relationship of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, in medieval Spain, did not mean that he lived in a time free of anti-Jewish thought.

Despite this difference in types of antagonistic rhetoric — and despite the clearly anti-Jewish, rather than anti-Semitic, character of these writings — modern representations of Samuel ibn Naghrīla cast him as a victim of anti-Semitism. In Part 2 of this article, we will see three different ways that modern writers imagined a kind of anti-Semitism into ibn Naghrīla’s biography and the consequences that has for understanding his life, his work, and the medieval world that he inhabited.

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© Copyright 2017 S.J. Pearce, All rights Reserved. Written For: The Public Medievalist
S.J. Pearce

The author S.J. Pearce

S.J. Pearce is an associate professor of medieval literature in the department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literatures at New York University. She is the author of The Andalusi Literary and Intellectual Tradition (Bloomington, 2017) and several prize-winning articles and essays. She tweets about medieval literature, modern medievalism, and the academy (and occasionally knitting, cooking, and cats) at @homophonous and blogs at https://wp.nyu.edu/sjpearce/meshalim-2-0/. This article is adapted and abridged from her forthcoming second book, In the Taifa Kingdoms: The Medieval Poetics of Modern Nationalism.