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  • Beastly Colloquies:Of Plagiarism and Pluralism in Two Medieval Disputations Between Animals and Men
  • Lourdes María Alvarez

The recuperation of the riches of medieval Catalan literary history was an essential element of the 19th-century Renaixença, which promoted the revival of the Catalan language and culture. While the cause of Catalan nationalism served agendas on both the political right and left, progressive, modernizing sectors conceptualized catalanisme as the restoration of a pluralistic culture that had fallen victim to Castilian expansionism and intolerance. As posited by nineteenth-century nationalists such as Valentí Almirall, the founder of the influential Diari Català, the rediscovery of Catalan history and literature brought new riches to the Peninsula as a whole.1 Among those treasures was Anselm Turmeda's Disputa de l'Ase (1417-18),2 which medievalists celebrated as a bawdy, yet deeply philosophical text in the spirit of Boccaccio's Decameron, and a proud precursor of Rabelais. It mattered little that the original Catalan version was lost and could only be reconstructed using the 1544 French edition; indeed, its loss at the hands of the Castilian Inquisition only served to reinforce the latent subtext of the Catalanist revival: that a narrow-minded Castilian centralism had long ago squelched the more cosmopolitan and universalist Catalan world view.3

Yet the prestige of Turmeda's work was dealt a serious blow when in 1914 the Spanish Arabist Miguel Asín Palacios condemned his work as a "plagio estupendo"/ "fantastic plagiarism"4 citing its similarities to a tenth-century Arabic text, Rasā'il Ikhwān al-Safā' [The Epistles of the Brethren of Purity].5 Turmeda's moral virtues had already been cast in doubt late in the nineteenth century, as evidence mounted that the stories of his saintly martyrdom—after abjuring the Islamic faith he had adopted upon his arrival in Tunis—were fabrications. If some Catalanists had once seen in him [End Page 179] a figure of the stature of Ramón Llull (only with a better sense of humor), Asín Palacios' condemnation of Turmeda's literary—and other—duplicities seriously tarnished his reputation as a writer and framed all subsequent discussion of his works.

The accusation of plagiarism is, of course, especially problematic when applied to works created in the manuscript culture of the Middle Ages. Some of Turmeda's defenders have simply dismissed the charge, arguing that copying and "borrowing" were commonplace in that environment so alien to our modern notions of intellectual property.6 Yet such a defense functions as a tacit acknowledgement of the "crime," thus foreclosing a reading which would highlight the radically different textual strategies and interpretative contexts of each work.7 Moreover, in this case, which traverses the culturally and politically fraught boundary between East and West, further reflection is especially necessary on the question of how plagiarism (or mere imitation) is to be distinguished from satire or intertextuality, or other legitimated relationships with literary ancestors. How do we define the legitimate or authentic "inheritors" of any literary, philosophical or cultural tradition? Are those outside of that lineage simply usurpers, plagiarists or servile copyists? Notwithstanding the fact that philological source studies, catalogues of "influences," and the creation of literary genealogies, (so fashionable among positivist historical critics) have been repudiated by most medievalists, it is still the case that the "originality" of any literary, cultural and scientific patrimony remains central to many discourses of national, ethnic and religious identity.

Thus, the scholarly concerns of Asín Palacios, who focused on the points of literary and religious contact between medieval Christian and Islamic civilizations, remain central to current debates about Islamic authenticity and the Arab world's relations with the "West." While he charged Turmeda with plagiarism, in other cases he valued Islamic "influence" much more positively. In his posthumous ŠSādilīes y alumbrados he argues that the sudden efflorescence of Spanish mysticism in the 16th century, emblematized by two of Spain's greatest mystics: San Juan de la Cruz and Santa Teresa of Avila, resulted from the convivencia with the inheritors of an Islamic mystical tradition dating back to 13th century al-Andalus.8 Yet Asín's efforts to bridge the...


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