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  • Sendebar:A Literary Rebellion
  • Robey Clark Patrick

The last two decades witnessed a remarkable shift in scholarship within the field of medieval Iberian wisdom literature. One such shift concentrated on the fourteenth-century texts of the Libro de buen amor and the Libro del conde Lucanor, and investigated the places of ambiguity, aporia, analogy, and paradox in order to discuss the hermeneutics of medieval literature.1 Another considered the thirteenth-century collections of sentential sayings and maxims, commonly referred to as compendios de castigos, and argued that such works were active agents in changing contemporary ideology connected to kingship and royal authority.2 This article seeks to bridge the gap between these two recent trends through a reading of Sendebar that combines current research on medieval hermeneutics of didactic literature and exempla with [End Page 39] the studies of compendios de castigos which have focused on understanding the interactions of these texts with the socio-political milieu in which they were created.3 As such, this article proposes two main conclusions: first, that the theme of good governance through the avoidance of saña, not the theme of misogyny, emerges as the unifying topic of Sendebar; and second, that by uniting the text with the theme of saña in relation to wisdom and rulers, a possible thirteenth-century reading of the work challenges the cultural campaign of Alfonso X, which sought to recast his image as a sovereign who possessed and had access to arcane knowledge and wisdom.4

In order to arrive at my proposed, mid-thirteenth-century reading of the work, I contend that Sendebar pertains to wisdom literature and should be approached as an adab text read similarly to a compendio de castigos. I focus my attention on the story commonly referred to as “Leo” in order to demonstrate its central role in understanding the meaning of the work as a whole.5 I will then situate my reading of the text in the socio-political [End Page 40] milieu of 1253 in order to propose a possible interpretation of the work by contemporary Castilian elites.6

The story of Sinbad is believed to have had its origin in India and to have migrated from East to West like the other popular short-story collections of Calila e Dimna, Barlaam y Josafat, and the Thousand and One Arabian Nights.7 While distant relatives of the story existed in the West at the same time, the version of the story that emerged in Iberia during the second half of the thirteenth century belongs to an Eastern tradition of story-telling and wisdom literature which should not be confused with the appearance of the Western branch known as The Seven Sages of Rome.8 The movement of the text through the Islamic Golden Age, and the cultural domestication of the story that occurred, additionally influenced the text’s content and reception. While Sendebar is solidly a part of the Castilian literary canon, an appreciation for the narrative techniques of Arabic adab literature are critical when approaching the work.

In its most general and inclusive definition, adab is “a curriculum of courtliness, leading to the formation of the Adib, the gentleman scholar” (Khalidi 8). While adab is not strictly literature, the transmission of its [End Page 41] teachings and practices are certainly passed down through writing, with the frametale as one of its chief examples (Toorawa 290).9 Recent studies of the framed narrative not only firmly place Sendebar within the genre of wisdom literature as one of many Castilian compendios de castigos, but new editions of the work have stressed the importance of approaching the text with its framed structure in mind.10 Scholars tracing generic trends in literature during the later Middle Ages have also recognized the influence of Arabic adab works on European texts, often pointing to Sendebar and Calila e Dimna as sites of encounter between East and West. As part of the adab tradition, scholarship on these works should also seek to connect them to political and socio-ethical criticism contemporary to the time of their production.11

Bearing in mind that Sendebar became accessible to a lay, Castilian audience within the same half...


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