Saturday, October 9, 2010

Nou d’octubre

The posters warn that flu is dangerous for old people. I no longer take that lightly. Unfortunately the inoculation campaign that the posters advertise didn’t begin until 1st October, and my flu began on or about 19th September. I’m not out of the woods yet; but thanks to in-the-nick-of-time medication, I didn’t collapse into pneumonia and I can write again.

My longtime Followers know that I like to celebrate anniversaries, even if it takes us off topic. Today it’s once again Nou d’octubre (Ninth of October), the National Day of the Valencians. I wrote about it last year (post of October 9, 2009) and about the classic of Valencian mediaeval literature called Tirant lo Blanch (Tirant, the White Knight), but here’s some more.

Today is the day when, in 1238, King James I of Aragon (Jaume Primer in Valencian – there‘s a university that bears that name) entered the city of Valencia after receiving the capitulation of its Muslim regime, which had occupied it for most of the previous 400 years. Soon afterwards, the Cathedral started to rise on the site of the Mezquita. At noon today the Valencian national flag, the Senyera, will be paraded through the downtown streets to the magnificent equestrian statue of James I as Conqueror that dominates Alfons the Magnanimous Square (seen photo). Old national passions die hard.

James was not only a great warrior, he was also a great administrator. He parcelled out the lands he conquered judiciously to his followers and supporters, including of course the Church. The College of Notaries of Valencia is the oldest in Spain. Last spring, I visited one of the rare public displays of the Llibre del Repartiment (Book of Property Distribution), which is to Valencia what the Domesday Book is to England. It was lent by the still-intact Archives of the Kingdom of Aragon in Barcelona. In a hasty hand, its three small-format volumes, compiled between 1237 and 1252, list all the property holdings granted by James in what became the Kingdom of Valencia. It’s written on paper manufactured at one or other of the several paper factories that James expropriated from the Muslims.

Although James entered Valencia on this day, he’d actually received the capitulation of the city on September 28. Why did he hold back? Well for one thing he may have been waiting for his rearguard to catch up. When he did finally move, he left the rearguard six kilometres outside, near the place where I now live. There’s a mediaeval cross to mark the spot – but only approximately because the coastline has receded and the cross has had to be moved. Another reason may have been the need to finalise documents and translate them. The Muslims spoke and wrote in Arabic, the Christians in some variant of Catalan. It’s hard to pin down the latter, and it’s not certain what dialect James himself spoke because he was brought up in several different regions. What’s clear is that in this situation, translators were needed. Who were they?

Astonishingly, considering how long ago it was, we do know the names and even a little background of some of James’s staff translators, his ‘secretary-interpreters’. (Bear in mind that the sharp distinction between translators and interpreters is modern, and that until the last century ‘interpreters’ were just as likely to translate written texts as spoken ones.) They were Drs. R. David, R. Solomon, and R. Moses Bachiel; David Almadayan, secretary to the infante Don Fernando; Drs. R. Joseph, R. Samson and Abraham ibn Vives. The last was probably the father of the wealthy Joseph ibn Vives who in 1271 held a lease of the salt-works of Valencia, and who was likely the ancestor of the prominent Valencian Renaissance humanist Luis Vives, of whom there is a statue in the courtyard of the University of Valencia.

As you can guess from the names, they were all Jewish.

The Jews formed a neutral group between Christians and Muslims. There were flourishing Jewish communities in all the major Iberian towns and in many of the not so major. When I met the Israeli translation theorist Itamar Even-Zohar last year, he was going around the old nucleus of Tarragona looking for remnants of the Jewish quarter there. The Jews spoke the languages of their milieux (Arabic in the Muslim areas) and wrote Hebrew in Arabic characters. As so often, they were cultivated and connected, and they were extremely useful to their rulers of whatever language or religion.
As a reward for the important services which they had rendered him in the conquest of the strongly fortified city, he presented to some of them houses belonging to the Moors, as well as real estate in the city and its precincts... In 1239 King James assigned the Jews a commodious quarter for residence.
From 1283 onwards, well after James’s reign, this idyllic cohabitation turned sour. But that’s another story.

Llibre del Repartiment de Valencia. In Spanish. Wikipedia Español.

Alfons Garcia. Por muchos estudios, nunca conoceremos la lengua de Jaume I. (However many studies are done, we will never know what language James I spoke). In Spanish. Levante-EMV newspaper, May 8, 2009.

Isidore Singer and Meyer Kayserling. Valencia. Jewish

The promised post on Medical Interpreting will appear in the next few days.

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