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  • Playing the Goth Card in Tenth-Century Córdoba:Ibn al- Qūṭīya’s Family Traditions
  • Denise K. Filios

The History [Ta’rīkh] of Ibn al-Qūṭīya (c. 890-977) has sparked ongoing debate over its accounts of the descendants of Witiza [Ghīṭīsha].1 The debate usually centers on historical reliability, but these accounts, often labeled family traditions, also raise important questions about the significance of Gothic identity in tenth-century Córdoba and about what Ibn al-Qūṭīya means when he proclaims his Gothicness. Historians such as Maribel Fierro address these issues by examining uses of Gothic identity in ninth- and tenth-century Iberia; I suggest that Ibn al-Qūṭīya’s literary techniques also can help us understand how he construes his ethnicity. I employ an interdisciplinary approach that begins by analyzing Ibn al-Qūṭīya’s narrative strategies, [End Page 57] especially the construction of his ancestors’ characters, and then uses those insights to explain his conception of Gothicness and his participation in the collaborative historiographical project sparked by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III’s declaration of the Caliphate of Córdoba in 929.2 Ibn al-Qūṭīya’s use of folkloric conventions in his stories about his ancestors facilitates his depiction of them as key historical actors who legitimize Umayyad rule in al-Andalus by embodying the elite cultural values shared by Arabs and Goths. For Ibn al-Qūṭīya, refined behavior and speech promote affiliations across ethnic and religious lines and provide a stable base for Andalusi society.

By folklore, I mean orally transmitted wisdom texts, including memorata, popular narratives, proverbs and other wisdom statements which circulate within certain communities, the knowledge of which constitutes an important part of social belonging.3 While the term ‘folklore’ assumes popular origin and raises the question of cultural specificity, the aspects I study here are not the exclusive property of Goths nor Arabs; rather, they constitute shared materials found within Andalusi wisdom culture. These elements suggest a continuity between popular oral narratives and adab [etiquette, refinement, Arabic rhetoric and wisdom], the refined oral performances characteristic of elite Arab culture, even as Ibn al-Qūṭīya uses these stories to insist on a rupture between uncouth and refined speech, most overtly in his anecdote about al-Ṣumayl, as I discuss below. I am specifically interested in the structural elements of the narratives related by Ibn al-Qūṭīya, traits which mark these stories as traditional narratives while they are also elements that typically structure memory: simple plot lines repeated with variants; archetypical character construction; random causality; movement from order to disorder to the restoration of order thanks to the actions undertaken by the protagonists. The fact that these elements typically structure [End Page 58] memory as well as traditional narratives naturalize them and can obscure their ideological function. Their very naturalness makes them powerfully persuasive strategies that Ibn al-Qūṭīya deploys in his polemical portrayal of his ancestors; their analysis can help shed light on Ibn al-Qūṭīya’s concept of his Gothic identity.

Family Traditions and Gothic Identity

In many ways, Ibn al-Qūṭīya’s text is a typical example of medieval Islamic historiography.4 It is a dynastic account that relates Andalusi history from 711 to approximately 927, highlighting the role of Umayyad caliphs and emirs in the Islamization and Arabization of al-Andalus. He strings together somewhat self-contained narratives or anecdotes in more or less chronological order, creating the appearance of a continuous story told by an insider with a particular expertise in genealogy, a taste for poetry and verbal artistry, and an almost prurient interest in the covert operations of Umayyad court functionaries. What is unusual is his account of the conquest that casts his ancestors in pivotal roles. His family traditions consist of three episodes centered on four characters: Witiza’s three sons, Almund, Rumulu and Arṭabās, and Sāra al-Qūṭīya, Almund’s daughter, the ‘Gothic woman’ whose ancestry is shorthand to identify our author. Not only do these stories not appear in any other early source, but they contradict the information found in others according to which Witiza had...


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