Comparing earlier works of Arabic-Islamic geography and historiography with the realities of their lifetime, Arabic-Islamic scholars of the twelfth to fifteenth centuries must have noticed that the regions north of the Mediterranean had undergone fundamental changes. Since the eleventh century, new players had entered the scene and considerably remodelled the Mediterranean landscape. In consequence, they also began to feature in Arabic-Islamic scholarly literature.

From the British Isles to England

A chronological analysis of references to the British Isles provides a clear-cut case study elucidating how Latin-Christian expansionism provided Arabic-Islamic scholars with new data on a specific Western European region.

Ibn Khurdadhbah (d. 300/912) mentioned twelve islands in ‘the so-called surrounding ocean’ (al-bahr al-musamma bi-l-muhit) called ‘the islands of Britain’ (jaza’ir Baratanya) but remained silent on its inhabitants.[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] Ptolemaic geography only seems to have provided him with purely geographic data on this region.90 Ibn Rustah (d. after 300/913) had more, but faulty and anachronistic data at his disposal. He believed that Britain was a city (madinat Bartinya) at the outer fringes of the Byzantine Empire (wa-hum akhir biladal-Rum). Travellers wishing to enter the city were allegedly stopped by an idol that lulled them to sleep until the city’s inhabitants woke them up. His assertion that seven kings ruled the city probably represents a faint echo of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy of the sixth to ninth centuries.91 However, this information was already a century old when Ibn Rustah recorded it, probably drawing on the report of a certain Harun b. Yahya who had spent some time in Byzantine captivity.92 Based on Ptolemaic geography and shreds of haphazardly transmitted information, both texts show that Middle Eastern scholars of the ninth and tenth centuries lacked comprehensive and recent data on the British Isles. Douglas Morton Dunlop has shown that other Arabic-Islamic texts from the Middle East and the Muslim West of the ninth to eleventh centuries contain even less data or are silent on the British Isles.93

Al-Idrlsl’s (d. c.560/1165) detailed description of the British Isles corroborates that Latin-Christian expansionism had opened up new channels of transmission. The Norman conquest of Sicily and North Africa resulted in a temporary atmosphere of transcultural exchange in Sicily.94 When Roger II employed al-Idrlsl at the Norman court, the latter received access to new and hitherto unavailable data on the north of the European continent.95 In al-Idrlsl’s work, the British Isles are now called ‘England’ (Inkartara, Inqaltara), ‘Scotland’ (jazirat Isqusiya), and ‘Ireland’ (Irlanda). The work lists numerous toponyms, distances, as well as climatic aspects, but is rather dry and technical.96 The definition of Hastings (Hastinksh), for example, ‘a considerable town, very populated with grand buildings, markets, artisans and rich merchants’, repeats a standard set of characteristics also used in connection with other toponyms and ignores the town’s significance for the Norman conquest of England in 1066.[9]

Like al-Idrisi, Arabic-Islamic scholars of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries used a toponym phonetically similar to the French term ‘Angleterre’, i.e. ‘Inkaltira’ for England, ‘al-Ankalthir’ for the English, and ‘al-Inkitar’ for the English king. Their works contain data on political and economic phenomena that was obviously acquired in connection with the English involvement in the third crusade and Mediterranean trade. Saladin’s biographer, Ibn Shaddad (d. 632/1235), for example, introduces the English king in a chapter entitled ‘News on the King of the English’ (khabar malik al-Inkitar), which deals with the arrival of Richard the Lionheart in Cyprus. Richard is characterized as a most valiant king, known for his great battles and his aptitude for waging war.[10] [11] The Andalusian geographer Ibn Sa'id (d. 685/1286), in turn, claims that the ‘island of England’ (jazirat Inkaltira) was governed by a ruler ‘who is also mentioned in the history of Saladin on the battles for Acre’,99 while al-Qalqashandi provides details on the treaties concluded between this king and al-Malik al-'Adil in 588/1192.[12] [13] [14] [15] The lack of Arabic-Islamic evidence on earlier English rulers suggests that the English king only became a subject of interest as soon as he interfered in eastern Mediterranean affairs.

Both Ibn Shaddad and Ibn Sa'ld mention that the English king was renowned, powerful, and wealthy, but subordinate to the French king (al-Faransis) in rank.101 According to Ibn Sa'id, he was even obliged to serve food to the French king during festive occasions, thus re-enacting an inherited custom.102 Rather difficult to interpret is Ibn Sa'id’s distinction between two British kingdoms—the ‘island of Britain’ (jazirat Baritanya), ruled by a single ruler (malik munfarid) from the capital Bristol (qaHdatuhu madinat Bristul) on the one hand, the ‘island of England’ (jazirat Inkaltira), ruled by the aforementioned English king (al-Inkitar) from the capital London (qaHdatuhu madinatLundras) on the other hand. According to Ibn Sa'id, both rulers waged war against each other over a small but populated island called ‘Ballah’.103

Ibn Sa'id provides additional data on the British Isles’ economic role for Mediterranean trade. He asserts that England was rich in ore, including gold, silver, copper, and tin, and that these metals served to buy wine in France, thus enriching the French king.[16] [17] [16] [19] [20] From England and Ireland, tin and copper were transported first via the Garonne, then on the land route to Narbonne and from there to Alexandria.105 It is possible that the soft dyed English cloth mentioned by the geographer also reached the Mediterranean via this routed6

Eventually, a faint reflection of the Norman conquest of England in 1066 found its way into an Arabic-Islamic work of scholarship. Writing on the Viking attacks on ninth-century al-Andalus, the Andalusian historiographer Ibn al-Khatib (d. 776/1375) commented that the Orientals equated the Vikings (al-Majus) with ‘the English’ (al-Ankalthir)!7 Although the passage fails to impart concrete knowledge about the Battle of Hastings and its consequences, it proves that some Arabic-Islamic scholars were aware of a connection between the current rulers of England and the notorious seaborne groups who had terrorized al-Andalus in earlier centuries.

Latin-Christian expansionism in its various facets had made all this new data available. The Norman conquest of Sicily produced an increasingly Latinized environment which, during a limited period of multicultural cohabitation and transcultural exchange, enabled Arabic-Islamic scholars such as al-Idrisi to acquire fresh information about the north. The third crusade introduced the English king to the Mediterranean and incited Arabic-Islamic scholars to assess his status in the Latin-Christian world. Finally, the import of raw materials and finished products from the British Isles spread information about the economic resources of this northern region.

  • [1] Ibn Khurdadhbah, al-masalik, ed. de Goeje, p. 231.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 3, claims to have translated Ptolemy.
  • [3] Ibn Rustah, al-a4aq al-nafisa, ed. de Goeje, pp. 85, 130.
  • [4] 92 Izzedin, ‘Harun b. Yahya’ (1971), p. 232. 93 Dunlop, ‘Isles’ (1957), pp. 11—28.
  • [5] 94 See Metcalfe, Muslims (2009), pp. 88—180, for an overview; Houben, ‘Moglichkeiten’ (1994),
  • [6] pp. 159—98, on the successive process of ‘Latinization’.
  • [7] On his employment, see Houben, Roger II (2002), pp. 102—7, on al-Idrisl’s sources, see Ducene,‘Poland’ (2008), p. 9; Ducene, ‘Sources’ (2012), pp. 128—30.
  • [8] 96 al-Idrisl, Opusgeographicum, ed. Bombaci et al., fasc. VIII, pp. 859, 869, 944—8, trans. Jaubert,vol. 2, pp. 357, 364, 423-6.
  • [9] al-Idrisi, Opusgeographicum, ed. Bombaci et al., fasc. VIII, pp. 880, 945: ‘madina muqaddaratal-kibar kathirat al-bashar 'amira jalila dhat aswaq wa-fa'la wa-tujjar mayasir’, trans. Jaubert, vol. 2, pp. 374, 424.
  • [10] Ibn Shaddad, al-nawadir, ed. al-Shayyal, p. 238.
  • [11] Ibn Sa id, al-jughrafiya, ed. al- Arabi, p. 199: wa-fi sharqi [sic] hadhihi al-jazira, jazirat Inkaltira,wa-sahibuha al-Inkitar al-madhkur fi tarikh Salah al-Din fi hurub 'Akka . . .’.
  • [12] 1°° al-Qalqashandi, subh al-a'ha, ed. Ibrahim, vol. 5, p. 375.
  • [13] Ibn Shaddad, al-nawadir, ed. al-Shayyal, p. 238: ‘wa-huwa dun al-Faransis ' indahum fi l-mulkwa-l-martaba, wa-lakinahu akthar malan minhu, wa-ashhar fi l-harb wa-l-shaja' a’.
  • [14] Ю2 Ibn Sa' id, al-jughrafiya, ed. al- Arabi, p. 200: ‘wa-ma' a ghina al-Inkitar wa-wasa' mamlakatihi,fa-innahu yuqirr bi-l-saltana li-l-Faransis, wa-idha kana mujtama' hafl, khadamahu bi-an yahuttquddamahu zabadiyyat ta' am, [wa-hiya] ' ada mutawaratha.’
  • [15] Ibid., pp. 181, 199—200. Phonetically, the toponym ‘Ballah’ evokes the Isles of Arran orBarra, situated west and northwest of the Scottish coast. Disputes about the Isle of Man sincethe end of the twelfth century make this option more plausible, cf. Beuermann, ‘Attack’ (2007),pp. 23-50.
  • [16] Ibn Said, al-jughrafiya, ed. al-Arabi, p. 200.
  • [17] Ibid., p. 181: ‘wa-l-nahr fi janubiha [i.e. the Garonne] tasad minhu al-marakib fi l-bahral-muhit bi-l-qazdir wa-l-nahas alladhan yujlaban min jazirat Inkaltira wa-jazirat lrlanda, wa-yuhmalanala l-zahr ila Narbuna, wa-minha yuhmalan fi marakib ila l-Iskandariyya’; ibid., p. 200; see a shorterversion in Abu l-Fida, taqwim, ed. Reinaud and de Slane, p. 188.
  • [18] Ibn Said, al-jughrafiya, ed. al-Arabi, p. 200.
  • [19] Ibn al-Khatib, acmalal-a'lam, ed. Levi-Proven^al, p. 20. See the end of Chapter 6.3.2.
  • [20] Ehlers, Entstehung (2010), pp. 23, 38, 40, 48.
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