ARABIC-ISLAMIC VERSIONS OF FRANKISH ‘ETHNOGENESIS’

Far from being stagnant, Arabic-Islamic definitions of the term ‘Franks’ evolved considerably over the centuries. The term became known to the Arabic-Islamic sphere either via Byzantium or in the wake of the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. Up to the late eighth century, and as far as this can be reconstructed from later sources, the term seems to have been used exclusively to denote a people that lived west of the Slavic sphere and north of al-Andalus.

Due to the Carolingian expansion into the Spanish Levant at the end of the eighth and the beginning of the ninth centuries, the emerging Catalan sphere also began to carry this ethnonym. Carolingian and Ottonian involvement on the Apennine Peninsula also led to the occasional classification of this region as ‘Frankish’. In the work of al-Mas'udl, the word ‘Frankish’ even served as a generic term for genealogically related societies, which cooperated against the Islamic sphere and were attached to the city of Rome for both historical and religious reasons.

The Norman settlement in northern France, their ensuing establishment in southern Italy, their conquest of Sicily, their temporary occupation of parts of North Africa as well as their involvement in the crusading movement, together with other representatives of the Frankish sphere, served to extend the ethnonym to regions farther south and southeast. Latin-Christian expansionism fortified the notion of an expanding Frankish sphere, gave rise to historical narratives of the Frankish rise to power, and certainly helped to promote the ethnonym’s function as a generic term for the peoples, societies, and rulers of Western Europe. In consequence, the term took on various facets in Arabic-Islamic scholarship written approximately from the eleventh century onwards.

It was used in connection with different historical phases. As opposed to the Visigothic kingdom, the Frankish realm had never succumbed to Muslim or other rule, with the effect that the ethnonym ‘Franks’ could not simply be relegated to the realm of history. Given the Carolingian realm’s impact on Muslim al-Andalus, its historical dimension was important to medieval Arabic-Islamic historiographers. However, to scholars who wrote after the end of the Carolingian era, it also applied, not only to the successors of Carolingian rule in medieval France and the Spanish Levant, but also to the rulers of Sicily as well as the temporary conquerors of North Africa and the so-called Latin East.

Further removed from the western Mediterranean, Middle Eastern authors of the crusading era and later applied the term ‘Franks’ to a large variety of Western European peoples, including those of the Iberian Peninsula. They tended to use it as a generic term for all peoples and societies of Western Europe. In parts of the Middle and the Far East, this usage seems to have continued up to the nineteenth century.2fi3 Western Muslim scholars also applied the term to Western Europeans active in Sicily, North Africa, or the so-called Latin East. However, because they knew more about the history and geography of the western Mediterranean, they were more cautious to impose the term on all European Christians and excluded the peoples of the Iberian Peninsula with the exception of the Catalans.

In consequence, the term ‘Franks’ never reached the status of an uncontested generic term for all Christian peoples of Western Europe. This also has to do with the fact that, from the latest since the ninth century, Arabic-Islamic scholars knew that various peoples populated Western Europe. Moreover, Latin-Christian expansionism into the Mediterranean basin acquainted them with various territories and peoples of Western Europe, among others the kingdom of France, and gave rise to a new ethnographic terminology. Interestingly, Arabic-Islamic scholars never addressed the various semantic levels of the term ‘Franks’ explicitly and thus failed to reflect on the resulting terminological complications. In spite of its different facets, the term ‘Franks’, apparently, did not seem ill-defined to medieval Arabic- Islamic scholars. [1]

  • [1] 3 Lewis and Hopkins, ‘Ifrandj’ (1971), p. 1044; Lewis, ‘Tafarnudj’ (2000), p. 81; Subrahmanyam,‘Franks’ (2005), pp. 69—100.
 
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