- Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds
A controversy has raged among historians of the Mediterranean for decades about the cultural and geopolitical meaning of "the Sea": Does this great body of water unite its southern and northern shores, or is it a marker of difference between them? Strenuous arguments on both sides of the question formed the armature of some of the more noteworthy historical writing of the twentieth century. While Braudel came down on the side of unity, Pirenne launched a whole new school of criticism, arguing that Islam was responsible for transforming the Mediterranean into an immense divide.1 Muslim forays into Europe after the seventh century, he asserted, broke up the cultural unity of late antiquity, and ushered in a period of discord. According to the "Pirenne thesis," the Sea lost its properties as a channel of communication and, instead, became the boundary between two separate worlds, each pursuing its own destiny.
More recent scholarship continues in this vein—on the one hand, the "clash of civilizations" camp that emphasizes disjuncture and the image of "two violently warring worlds" (in the words of Stephen Greenblatt), and, on the other hand, the synthesizers who see the sinews [End Page 261] of connectivity everywhere. Davis' book is situated squarely in the center of this larger debate, and she takes a fresh position on it. Her subject is a flitting and elusive border crosser known in the West as Leo the African, who went by various names and guises, depending on time and place. To his Maghribi fellow countrymen, he was Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi; in Europe he was known sometimes as Giovanni Leone and sometimes as Yuhanna al-Asad. Born near the end the fifteenth century in Granada, he traveled extensively throughout the Maghrib, serving various masters on missions of shadowy purpose. On one such foray in 1518, he was captured by Spanish pirates near the coast of Tunis and brought as a prize to Pope Leo X. Catechized and baptized, he spent the next nine years in Italy, absorbed into the cosmopolitan circles of the Vatican court.
At some point he became a writing machine, turning out books, dictionaries, and other compositions for humanist scholars hungry for knowledge of distant worlds. His greatest accomplishment was the History and Description of Africa (Rome, 1526), a monumental work that brought Europeans firsthand knowledge of that vast yet little known continent. A polymath with a keen sense of himself, Leo Africanus was a complex and deeply enigmatic figure whose life and work, once forgotten, is now enjoying a revival in an age drawn to questions of hybridity and ambivalence.
With the confidence of an experienced tightrope walker, Davis enters the fray, selecting and weaving into a rich (if mottled) tapestry the bits and pieces revelatory of the man's life. Her virtuosity as a historian, her deep knowledge of Renaissance Europe, her surefootedness, and her lack of timidity make what could well have been an unconvincing narrative in the hands of someone less skilled an inspired meditation on the life of a "trickster bird" who practiced dissimulation in order to survive and produced work that has withstood the tests of time (247).
In her introductory chapter, Davis traces the archeology of the text and the evolution of interest in Leo among European and North African scholars. Visions of his life and work have changed over time. Davis herself was drawn to a topic because it allowed her to "explore how a man moved between different polities, made use of different cultural and social resources, and entangled or separated them so as to survive, discover, write, make relationships and think about society and himself" (11). The overwhelming methodological problem was the scanty evidence, which, she admits, caused her to "make use of the conditional—'would have,' 'may have,' 'was likely to have,'—and the speculative 'perhaps, 'maybe.'" (13).
Chapter 2 concerns Leo's early life in Muslim Spain and North Africa, his solid yet eclectic education, and his wanderings across North...