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Monstrous Muslims? Depicting Muslims in French Illuminated Manuscripts from 1200-1420

Monstrous Muslims? Depicting Muslims in French Illuminated Manuscripts from 1200-1420

By Benjamin Anthony Bertrand

Honor’s Thesis, University of New Hampshire, 2015

Initial “S” with Crusader envoys and two men discussing renewal of treaty between King of Jerusalem and Sultan of Egypt – from Walters Ms. W.137 / Walters Art Museum

Abstract: This paper examines depictions of Muslims in illuminated manuscripts produced in France between 1200-1420 that feature images of Christian-Muslim interactions. The study specifically looks at three popular manuscripts from the time: the Histoire d’Outremer, the Grandes Chroniques de France, and the Roman d’Alexandre en Prose. By examining the depictions of Saracens in these three manuscripts I attempt to gain an understanding of the artists’ perceptions of Muslims.

I argue that through analyzing the topoi employed by these artists we can understand how they and their audiences viewed Muslims. These images demonstrate that these artists understood Saracens to be very different from themselves but could also recognize admirable qualities and see similarities to them. This implies a nuanced understanding of Muslims that comes out in many of the depictions of Christian-Muslim interactions shown in these manuscripts.

Introduction: In the eighth century the Christian writer John of Damascus (A.D. 675-749) explained to his readers in A Disputation Between a Saracen and a Christian, that the followers of the law of Mohammad called themselves “Saracens,” because they were claiming to be the sons of Sarah, Abraham’s legitimate wife. His Christian audience would have known that the Muslims were lying about this. For they were the descendants of Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Sarah’s slave Hagar, who had been cast out after Abraham’s legitimate son Isaac was born. Of course it was John of Damascus who was mistaken for the Muslims would have proudly attested that they were the sons of Ishmael. The false etymology that John of Damascus wrote of would be propagated for hundreds of years and was even used by Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard. For centuries after becoming aware of Islam, western Christians grappled with this strange race and attempted to understand it.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of New Hampshire

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