Dragomans and Crusaders: The Role of Translators and Translation in the Medieval Eastern Mediterranean, 1098-1291

Dragomans and Crusaders: The Role of Translators and Translation in the Medieval Eastern Mediterranean, 1098-1291

By William Stephen Murrell, Jr.

PhD Dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 2018

Abstract: My dissertation project asks a simple question: how did the invading Franks navigate the multifaceted language barrier when they conquered, settled, and ruled Syria in the era of the crusades? This project explores the ways in which interpreters and translators facilitated intercultural contact between Muslims, Latin Christians, and Eastern Christians in Syria in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Employing a wide range of sources in Arabic, Latin, and Old French, I examine and uncover the role of translators and translation in five crucial arenas of contact: diplomacy, local administration, trade, pilgrimage, and scientific scholarship.

Three central arguments echo throughout this study. First, because language barriers were ubiquitous in the medieval eastern Mediterranean, so were translators. They were not merely confined to contexts of diplomacy or scholarship; rather, they were integral to every sort of intercultural contact between Muslims, Franks, and local Christians.

Second, translators were not only ubiquitous, they were exceptionally versatile. By bridging language barriers, translators always become more than mere linguistic intermediaries, functioning in various contexts as negotiators, tax collectors, brokers, guides, and administrators. Finally, because of their ubiquitous presence and their multifaceted involvement in Muslim-Frankish contact, I argue that translators and interpreters are indeed “agents of history” in the medieval eastern Mediterranean. That they are often absent in the medieval sources is not a testament to their insignificance but rather to their ubiquity in everyday life and their success in mediating complex language barriers in diplomacy, local administration, trade, pilgrimage, and scholarship. This research represents an original contribution to the history of the crusades, Mediterranean studies, and the history of translation.

Click here to read this thesis from Vanderbilt University

Top Image: Crusades sailing towards the Holy Land – St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 658, f. 18 – eCodices

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