Muslim Refugees in Medieval Malta (ca. 1463)? Mobility, Migration and the Muslim-Christian Frontier in the Mediterranean World

Over the past several years, scholars around the world have begun to adopt an expansive view of the medieval world as an interconnected and culturally diverse landscape. While notions of the “Global Middle Ages”[1] will continue to be debated, the concept has provoked critical conversations about the ways in which the migration of people, the exchange of ideas, the circulation of commodities, and the spread of disease shaped the medieval world.  Whether the motivation was exploration, piety, diplomacy, knowledge, or profit, the movement of people was a fundamental characteristic of the late medieval Mediterranean world (ca. 1250-1500).  While these networks certainly formed the basis for establishing transregional connections, itinerant scholars, merchants, soldiers, and pilgrims were not the only travelers in the medieval world.

The Catalan Atlas, ca. 1375, produced by Abraham and Jehudà Cresques in late 14th-century Majorca, provides a vision of a highly-connected medieval world characterized by ethnic, cultural and political diversity woven together through a web of trade routes and mercantile networks. The full manuscript has been digitized by the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Migration could also be involuntary (exile, expulsion and enslavement), prompted by violent repression, or driven by economic necessity. The last few years has seen increased attention to the histories of religious refugees, economic migrants and political exiles in the medieval and early modern world. One important recent contribution, Migrants in Medieval England, c. 500-c. 1500, for example, draws on interdisciplinary research in genetics, linguistics, archaeology, art and literature to illustrate the social and cultural effects of migration on medieval English society.[2] Investigating the phenomenon of migration induced by religious persecution and expulsion, Nicholas Terpstra’s Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World has demonstrated how the forced migration of millions of Jews, Muslims, and Christians across Europe and around the globe shaped the early modern world and profoundly affected literature, art, and culture.[3] Another recent book, Migration Histories of the Medieval Afroeurasian Transition Zone,[4] covers migration histories of the regions between the Mediterranean and Central Asia and between Eastern Europe and the Indian Ocean in the centuries from Late Antiquity up to the early modern era. It includes essays by experts in Byzantine, Islamic, Medieval and African history that provide detailed analyses of specific regions and groups of migrants, both elites and non-elites as well as voluntary and involuntary to enrich our understanding of migration as a complex transhistorical phenomenon that has shaped (and continues to shape) human societies.

Cantino World Map, 1502.

As a modest contribution to this larger scholarly discussion, this piece seeks to draw attention to one particular author, the Muslim traveler Zayn al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ b. Khalīl (1440-1514), whose writings constitute a valuable source for the history of a late medieval Mediterranean world defined by mobility and migration. ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ, a scholar and merchant, was born into a family of administrators and statesmen in Malatya, in eastern Anatolia. He traveled across Syria, Egypt, North Africa and Islamic Spain during the 15th century, and meticulously documented his experiences and observations in his monumental four volume work titled “The Joyous Garden: A Catalogue of the Events and Biographies of the Age” (al-Rawḍ al-Bāsim fī Ḥawādith al-‘Umur wa-l-Tarājim), written around 1483. The pleasant and cheerful title of the work, however, does not reflect its contents, which depicts a complex world that was defined by mass violence, political turmoil and social injustice, as well as by religious coexistence, trade and intellectual exchange. ‘Abd al-Bāsit also provides important evidence for migration that was shaped by economic and political necessity. Perhaps the most important example of this can be seen in two particular anecdotes about a small wave of migration from North Africa to the island of Malta:

“On Wednesday 4 Jumādā II 867/February 24 1463, news spread that a group of people from Misrata, nearly 60 in total, set sail on the Mediterranean and made for the Christian [lit: Frankish] island of Malta, in order to place themselves under their protection and power. They did this because they sought refuge from the oppression and injustice of the military commander Abū Naṣr [b. Jā’ al-Khayr], the governor of Tripoli appointed by the [Hafsid] ruler of Tunis [Abū ‘Amr] ‘Uthmān [r. 1435-1488], who seemed unconcerned and untroubled by this. Verily, there is no power or strength except by God![5]

[…]

“On Thursday 19 Ramadan 867/June 7 1463, we were informed that a group of people from Misrata, nearly 15 in total, sailed for the island of Malta in small boats, along with their families, children and elders in order to settle there under the protection and power of the Christians of the abode of war, in order to flee from the oppression and injustice of the governor of Tripoli. There came news from Malta that the Christians were welcoming, permitting them to settle and granting them land. The [Maltese] stipulated that [the migrants] would pay them as a land tax about one-third or slightly less, as they had been accustomed to paying to the governor of Tripoli, while being protected from injustice and secure in their lives and property. Verily, we are from God and unto him we will return!”[6]

Grazioso Benincasa, Portolan Chart, 1470.

These short textual fragments appear to suggest that on two separate occasions, in February 1463 and June 1463, small numbers of Muslim inhabitants of Misrata, near Tripoli (modern-day Libya), along with their families, voluntarily migrated to Malta to live as farmers under Latin Christian rule. It demonstrates the tremendous agency of these individuals, who sought to escape injustice and hardship by undertaking the (highly) perilous journey to Malta, an island inhabited almost entirely by Christians and which was part of the extensive domains of the Crown of Aragón. The fact that these migrants were welcomed and granted land in Malta is all the more interesting in light of the broader geo-political context and cultural context of the mid-15th century Mediterranean world, which witnessed heightened anxieties, religious tensions and millenarian sentiments following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople (May 1453) and the imperial expansion that characterized the reign of Mehmed II (r. 1452-1481).

Accession of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in Edirne 1451, Topkapi Palace Museum, Hazine 1523, Hüner-name.

It reflects the importance of local arrangements, and individual relationships in structuring the politics of the Mediterranean world. While religious hostility, confessional tensions and violence were undoubtedly an important reality that shaped attitudes and policies during this period, this did not preclude collaboration and negotiation across religious and cultural boundaries. There may have even been a demographic and agricultural demand for the types of skills and labor provided by the migrants. Throughout the 15th century, Malta’s population remained relatively small, and was constantly depleted as a result of emigration and enslavement. This meant that there was a surplus of land and a dearth of labor, which posed major problems for an economy that was primarily agricultural. An important testimony of the importance of Malta’s agriculture is provided by the traveler Anselm Adorno, who visited Malta in 1470 and noted that the economy was based largely upon the growth of cotton and cumin.[7] This demand for labor, particularly in the cultivation of cotton, might explain the willingness of the local authorities in Malta to welcome the migrants and grant them land.

Mdina, Malta, which was the most important town on the island of Malta during the Middle Ages. It was also the location of the Università, the representative body of government which collected taxation and administered the island.

The details mentioned by ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ, including the language of sovereignty and mutual obligations, security of lives and property in exchange for a tax, and the specific amount (one-third) of land-tax (kharāj), reflected the particular administrative and political tradition of Muslims residing under Latin Christian rule as laborers, farmers ad tax-paying subjects. There were important antecedents for this arrangement in the medieval Mediterranean, particularly in medieval Spain, Norman Sicily and the Crusader Kingdoms in the Near East.[8]

Spanish Muslims in the presence of Jaume I of Aragón. Cantigas de Santa María, 13th century.

Significantly, while underscoring the perceived transgression of social and religious boundaries in the migration of these individuals from Islamic lands to Latin Christendom, ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ does not seek to represent the migrants themselves as particularly nefarious. Rather, the emphasis on the fact that they were compelled by necessity and desperation to “flee” and “seek refuge” from the injustice of the Hafsid governor of Tripoli reflects a particular concern with social injustice and political repression as a cause of migration. ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ describes the governor of Tripoli, whose name was Abū Naṣr [b. Jā’ al-Khayr], as “among the worst tyrants who had no fear of God and governed his subjects in the worst possible way.” He also states that “I have been informed that each year he sends over 100,000 gold dinars…which he extracts through an oppressive regime of taxation that imposes hardships on the people.”[9] This explicitly connected Abū Naṣr’s oppressive conduct with his burdensome fiscal policies. Significantly, the emphasis in his passage about the migrants to Malta was not that they would be paying considerably less taxes, since it is stated that they would pay the amount that “they had been accustomed to paying to the governor of Tripoli.” Rather, ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ suggests that they would “be protected from injustice and secure in their lives and property.”  As such, the inclusion of this anecdote was an attempt to make a broader claim about the nature of justice and its importance for establishing a stable society. ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ considered the migration of the inhabitants of Misrata to be a lamentable and deplorable state of affairs, which reflected poorly upon both Abū Naṣr as well as the Hafsid sovereign Abū ‘Amr Uthmān, who he represents as showing little interest in the well-being of his own subjects. Migration, then, could be seen as constituting part of a larger polemic that sought to cast aspersions upon the legitimacy of Hafsid rule. The idea that the inhabitants of Misrata preferred to reside under Latin Christian rule than under Islamic political authority would have been an effective way to emphasize this point.

Representation of Malta in the early 16th century. Piri Reis, Kitab-i Bahriye, Walters manuscript W.658, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

So, one might ask, why Malta? What factors shaped the decision of these migrants to sail to this Christian island? It is particularly significant that they chose to migrate to Malta in particular. It demonstrates the importance of linguistic affinities, as well as the practical considerations of migration. Their decision to journey to Malta was probably motivated by the fact that the Maltese vernacular was essentially a dialect of Arabic which was intelligible to the inhabitants of Misrata. This fact is attested by many of the surviving documents and literary sources from this period.[10] One of the most important of these is the Il-Kantilena, the oldest known literary text in the Maltese language, authored by the Maltese poet and philosopher Pietru Caxaro (d. 1485) during the late 15th century.[11] Il-Kantilena is notable for its extensive Arabic vocabulary, demonstrating its relationship and proximity to the Siculo-Arabic spoken in Sicily during the 11th-13th centuries. The close association between Malta and the Arabic language of its inhabitants was frequently invoked as a fundamental characteristic of the island well into the early modern period. The Morisco notable Francisco Núñez Muley (d. after 1567), for example, writing in Granada (Spain), proclaimed that “those who live on the not-so-distant island of Malta are Catholic Christians and nobles who speak Arabic and use Arabic to write texts having to do with the Holy Catholic faith and other Christian matters. I also believe that they say mass in Arabic.”[12] Despite the religious differences between the Maltese Christians and the Muslim inhabitants of Misrata, the Arabic language and shared history would have served as a common source of affinity. This did not preclude the existence of serious tensions, of course, but it would have certainly enabled the migrants to communicate with their new hosts and negotiate the terms of their arrival and settlement.

Pietru Caxaro, Il-Kantilena, 15th century, the oldest known literary text in the Maltese language.

There was also another, more practical reason why these migrants would have sailed to Malta. The island was located nearby, approximately 400 km north of Misrata, directly off a major sailing route (as indicated by the many portolan charts from the 15th century). Malta would also have been quite familiar to the inhabitants of Misrata as a result of the various connections, including both trading and raiding, which had existed for centuries. In addition to being under Islamic rule from 870 to 1091, there is evidence to indicate that there were still numerous Muslim families living on the royal estates of the islands of Malta and Gozo as late as the mid-13th century.[13] Several decades before the migrants from Misrata made their journey, the Hafsid royal fleet had besieged Malta in September 1429, devastating the island and enslaving a large part of the island’s population.[14] It is plausible that many of these enslaved peoples would have been known to the inhabitants of Misrata, and some of them may have even been among the migrants themselves.Commercial activity and intermittent warfare would have intimately bound the two regions together, and fostered a certain familiarity between the inhabitants of the Muslim-Christian borderlands in the central Mediterranean.

It is also plausible that these individuals from Misrata were following a common route of migration, and were hardly the first to make the journey. The phenomenon of migration from North Africa to Malta during the late 14th and early 15th century may also be attested by onomastics. As Godfrey Wettinger has shown, the name “Muhammed” and its various forms (muhumudi, muhamud, muhumud) appears as a surname for several individuals in a 1419 militia roll from Malta, but is unattested as a surname in the rosters of 1480.[15] Without further research and evidence, it is difficult to speculate, but the questions remain: did this name belong to migrants from North Africa? What explains its disappearance by 1480? Does this reflect the processes of conversion and assimilation as part of the integration of these individuals into Maltese Christian society?

Maymūnah Stone, Gozo Museum of Archaeology, Victoria, Gozo. This 12th-century marble tombstone, inscribed in Arabic, commemorates a Muslim girl named Maymūnah who died on 21 March 1174. It is one of the most important Islamic archaeological remains from medieval Malta.

While it is plausible that ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ’s account about the migration from Misrata to Malta in the 15th century was a didactic story that sought to caution readers against political injustice and fiscal oppression, this post has attempted to encourage further inquiry into the question of economic migration in the medieval Mediterranean world. While much more research into the extensive and well-preserved Maltese archives will certainly bring much more evidence about the relationship between medieval Malta and North Africa to light, this particular episode underscores the importance of economic and political circumstances, individual agency and religious boundaries in shaping the history of migration in the late medieval Mediterranean world. Although distinctly medieval in a number of ways, it raises important questions about the role of migration, voluntary or otherwise, in shaping human societies over the centuries.

Mohamad Ballan
Mellon Fellow, Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame (2021-2022)
Assistant Professor of History
Stony Brook University


[1] For an important overview and discussion of this concept, see Catherine Holmes and Naomi Standen, “Introduction: Towards a Global Middle Ages,” Past & Present, Volume 238, Issue suppl_13, November 2018, pp. 1–44, https://doi.org/10.1093/pastj/gty030

[2] W. Mark Ormrod, Joanna Story, and Elizabeth M. Tyler (eds.), Migrants in Medieval England, c. 500-c. 1500 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[3] Nicholas Terpstra, Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative History of the Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[4] Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, Lucian Reinfandt, and Yannis Stouraitis (eds.), Migration Histories of the Medieval Afroeurasian Transition Zone: Aspects of Mobility between Africa, Asia and Europe, 300-1500 C.E. (Leiden: Brill, 2020). Available in Open Access : https://brill.com/view/title/55556

[5] Zayn al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ b. Khalīl al-Ḥanafī, Kitāb al-Rawḍ al-Bāsim fī Ḥawādith al-‘Umur wa-l-Tarājim (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Aṣriyyah, 2014), ed. ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Salam Tadmuri, 2: 214.

[6] Zayn al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ b. Khalīl al-Ḥanafī, Kitāb al-Rawḍ al-Bāsim fī Ḥawādith al-‘Umur wa-l-Tarājim (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Aṣriyyah, 2014), ed. ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Salam Tadmuri, 2: 224-225.

[7] Brunschvig, Robert Brunschvig, Deux récits de voyage inédits an Afrique du Nord au XVe siècle (Paris : Maisonneuve & Larose, 1935), 143.

[8] For an important study of this phenomenon, see Brian Catlos, Muslims of Medieval Latin Christendom, c. 1050-1614 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[9] Zayn al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ b. Khalīl al-Ḥanafī, Kitāb al-Rawḍ al-Bāsim fī Ḥawādith al-‘Umur wa al-Tarājim (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Aṣriyyah, 2014), ed. ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Salam Tadmuri, 2: 220-221.

[10] For a discussion of Maltese vernacular during the medieval and early modern period, see Godfrey Wettinger, “Plurilingualism and Cultural Change in Medieval Malta,” Mediterranean Language Review, Vol. 6-7 (1990-1993), 144-160

[11] M. Ballan, “Il-Kantilena: A 15th-century Poem in Medieval Maltese” https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2019/04/08/il-kantilena-a-15th-century-poem-in-medieval-maltese/

[12] Francisco Núñez Muley, A Memorandum for the President of the Royal Audiencia and Chancery Court of the City and Kingdom of Granada (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), trans. Vincent Barletta, 92.

[13] Ayşe Devrim Atauz, Eight Thousand Years of Maltese Maritime History : Trade, Piracy, and Naval Warfare in the Central Mediterranean (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008), 53.

[14] Robert Brunschvig, La Berbérie orientale sous les Ḥafṣides des origines à la fin du XVe siècle (Paris : Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1940), 230-232.

[15] Godfrey Wettinger, “The Distribution of Surnames in Malta in 1419 and the 1480s,” Journal of Maltese Studies 5 (1968), 42; Godfrey Wettinger, “The Militia List of 1419-20 : a New Starting Point for the Study of Malta’s Population,” Melita Historica, 5 (1969), 80-105.


Religion as an Inheritable Trait: Attitudes towards Miscegenation in Frankish Literature and Law during the Crusades

The Crusades reveal that medieval attitudes towards sexuality were not always rigid and repressed. In fact, medieval societies expressed varying levels of tolerance and fluidity depending on circumstances and necessity. Unlike what a simple understanding of the Crusades would imply, Christians and Muslims did not occupy such disparate spheres that sexual relations between them—even those as legitimate as matrimony—were inconceivable. At times, miscegenation was tolerated. Moreover, while attitudes towards sexual relations with the religious ‘other’ remained largely (though not always) negative, the factors that governed these attitudes varied.

Literary sources and medieval chronicles reveal a complexity of attitudes and concerns. Lynn Ramey, in her 2001 work Christian, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature, has explored medieval attitudes towards miscegenation as expressed in Frankish literature.[i] A genre of romance literature, called Chansons de Geste, that became popular in the Frankish world between 1150 and 1250, reveal anxieties over interfaith marriage in Western Christendom. This genre of literature reveals racial biases against Muslims, but at the same time, present models of marriage between Muslims and Christians that accommodate these biases. A recurring component in these poems is the scene of baptism: a symbolic enactment of washing away the spiritual dirtiness of the previous faith to embrace the purity of Christianity. But the dirtiness is more than spiritual. These texts reveal the concern over biological inheritance from the Muslim spouse in interfaith marriages. In her article, “Medieval Miscegenation: Hybridity and the Anxiety of Inheritance,”Lynn Ramey explores reproductive anxieties that texts such as King of Tars reveal, and argues that there was serious apprehension over whether the offspring of an interfaith marriages would be healthy. She traces these fears to Aristotelean, Galenic, and Hippocratic models of reproduction that Christendom had inherited. Ramey suggests that religious traits were perceived as biological and inheritable, and most importantly, undesirable. In the King of Tars, for instance, a marriage alliance between a “Saracen” king and a Christian princess leads to the birth of a defective offspring. However, the conversion of the Muslim king to Christianity corrects the offspring’s birth defects. Christian features, therefore, were desirable while Muslim ones were not. Thus, religion determined biology. King of Tars, she argues, offers conversion as a suitable means of eliminating undesirable traits. Thus, the “dark” Saracen king turns “white” upon conversion and the “blob” of an offspring becomes a beautiful boy following his baptism.[ii]

15th-century Woodcut depicting “Saracens.”

In the poem, King of Tars, the desired inheritable physical traits are achieved upon conversion. However, in other poems, there is less certainty over the mutability of physical traits. In these poems, assimilation is permissible only when the Muslim fulfils two major criteria: he or she fits the Christian standard of beauty and he or she willingly converts to Christianity. The Capture of Orange, composed around 1150, for instance, narrates the tale of a Crusader knight, William of Toulouse who falls in love with the beautiful and noble-hearted, yet, religiously “misled” Saracen queen, Orable of Orange. In the poem, the Crusaders describe the physical beauty and sexual appeal of the ‘Saracen’ queen in the following terms:  

King Teebo’s wife, so fair of hair and head:
You’ll never find her peer for loveliness
In Christendom or any Pagan realm!
Such tenderness! Such slender hips and legs,
And falcon’s eyes, so bright and so intense!
Alas for youth and beauty so misled
In ignorance of God and His largesse!
How fine a place she’d make a Christian bed
For somebody who’d save her soul from hell![iii]

Orable, therefore, fulfils the Christian beauty standard by being ‘fair of hair and head’, and following the capture of Orange and the defeat of King Teebo, she converts willingly to Christianity in order to marry William. Similar to The Capture of Orange wherein the Muslim woman weds a Christian Knight, the Aye of Avignon, composed around 1190, features a noble-hearted Muslim King who is willing to leave his faith and his land behind in order to wed a Christian woman. Again, in this poem the Muslim man is honorable but, most importantly, handsome:

KING GANOR WAS as gracious and kind as he was bold.
In one hand he was holding a pilgrim-staff of oak,
But took off from the other a glove with stitches sewn.
The graceful hand beneath it was long, and pale as snow,
And, on its little finger, displayed a ring of gold.[iv]

Ramey points out that medieval romances read like legal treatises on marriage, recommending assimilation of those parts of Muslim culture that were perceived as non-threatening in Western Christendom and “othering” those aspects that were. The dark skin, for example, was alleged to be a physical sign of barbarism. However, the internal virtues of patience, tolerance and courage in a “Saracen were grudgingly admired.”[v]

These poems, thus, seek to balance the Christian penetration of Muslim culture by absorbing valuable traits of the latter while at the same time emphasizing the ultimate victory of the former. For instance, in King Ganor’s case, he is not required to change his name; while in the case of the queen in Capture of Orange, she is baptized as ‘Guibourc.’ The latter expresses the symbolic victory of Christianity over Islam through the male penetration of the female: the Christian knight acquires a Muslim wife by baptizing her. Moreover, since inheritance of name, title, and the honors associated thereof was paternal in Western Christendom, changing the woman’s name presented no problem. Further, there is little unease when a woman sheds her name upon marriage. On the other hand, all the desirable achievements associated with King Ganor’s name could not be inherited by his sons had his name changed. This would likely create cause for concern in the medieval imagination. Moreover, a man shedding his name stirs unease not quite on the same level as but somewhat similar to castration. The idea is that a man is cuckolded or less manly when he changes too much for his wife. So, the change has to be just enough to establish the superiority of Christianity, but not so much that it establishes the dominance of the woman over the man. Consequently, King Ganor’s name stays the same despite his baptism. Chansons de Geste, thus, present a fictional playing field where medieval anxieties over miscegenation are revealed and resolved.

Painting of William of Orange by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666).

Anxieties over biological inheritance is apparent not only in literature but also in the laws of the Fourth Lateran Council, 1215. Canon 50, for example, prohibits marriages to the fourth degree of kinship. The reason provided for this restriction is a biological one: “The number four agrees well with the prohibition concerning bodily union about which the Apostle says, that the husband does not rule over his body, but the wife does; and the wife does not rule over her body, but the husband does; for there are four humours in the body, which is composed of the four elements.”[vi] But, it is not merely biological inheritance that is addressed in the Fourth Lateran Council. Canon 68 discloses concerns about impurity incurred due to intermixing. This Canon mandates that Jews and Saracens should dress differently from Christians:

A difference of dress distinguishes Jews or Saracens from Christians in some provinces, but in others a certain confusion has developed so that they are indistinguishable. Whence it sometimes happens that by mistake Christians join with Jewish or Saracen women, and Jews or Saracens with Christian women. In order that the offence of such a damnable mixing may not spread further, under the excuse of a mistake of this kind, we decree that such persons of either sex, in every Christian province and at all times, are to be distinguished in public from other people by the character of their dress.[vii]

This decree suggests that it was difficult to distinguish between Christians and non-Christians which allows for free mixing between the two groups. While this Canon expresses the concern that uninhibited ‘mixings’ often led to sexual relations, it might also reveal apprehension about the exchange of ideas and practices between Christians and non-Christians. Hence the insistence that other religious communities dress differently so as to contain all types of mingling or at the very least make such interactions in plain view and, by extension, manageable.

The apprehension over exchange of ideas and practices is obvious in Canon 70, which prohibits new converts from retaining any remnants of their old faith: “Certain people who have come voluntarily to the waters of sacred baptism, as we learnt, do not wholly cast off the old person in order to put on the new more perfectly. For, in keeping remnants of their former rite, they upset the decorum of the Christian religion by such a mixing.”[viii] This canon points to a phenomenon that was probably occurring in Christendom, that is, of non-Christians converting to Christianity as a means to achieve goals other than a genuine acceptance of a new faith and, therefore, converts did not necessarily shed the customs and traditions of their previous faith. Moreover, even if there was genuine intent, a combination of factors such as habit, comfort, and social pressure may have caused them to revert to the practices of their former tradition. The problem that the Canon addresses is not a biological one, but that of maintaining religious decorum while receiving converts from other faiths and traditions.

Literature in Western Christendom reveals an anxiety about biological inheritance in a mixed marriage. These anxieties appear to stem from the idea that religion was inheritable. Along the same lines, these poems permit assimilation of only those Muslims who fulfil Christian standards of beauty. In other words, in order for the Muslim to be assimilated, he or she should either already have the physical attributes of a “Christian” or conform to those attributes upon baptism. Biological inheritance is a concern in the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 as well. However, the principal focus of these decrees is the maintenance of religious homogeneity and decorum.

The most fascinating feature about the study of medieval miscegenation is the extent to which these negative yet complex attitudes persist in the modern world. Clearly, even today there is unease and concern about marrying a person of a different race or culture. While the idea of having sexual relations outside racial categories may sound appealing, the extent of difference—physical or otherwise—that individuals are willing to tolerate may not be substantial enough to allow such relationships to succeed. Whether it is sexual purity or biological inheritance or religious decorum that was the concern during the Crusades or whether it is the extent of difference individuals tolerate in modern day culture, miscegenation stirred and continues to stir complex attitudes in ancient and medieval as well as modern societies.

Ambika Natarajan
Visiting Lecturer and Research Associate
UM-DAE Centre for Excellence in Basic Sciences

To learn more about her research, visit her website: https://ambikasana.com/


[i] Lynn Ramey, Christian, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature (New York: Routledge, 2001).

[ii] Lynn Ramey, “Medieval Miscegenation: Hybridity and the Anxiety of Inheritance,” in Contextualizing the Muslim Other in Medieval Christian Discourse, ed. Jerold C. Frakes (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2011), 1-20.

[iii] “The Capture of Orange,” in Heroines of the French Epic: A Second Selection of Chansons de Geste, trans. Michael Newth (Hungerford: D.S Brewer, 2014), 17.

[iv] “Aye of Avignon,” in Heroines, 188.

[v] Lynn Ramey, Christian, Saracen and Genre, 65.

[vi] Canon 50, J. Schroeder, “Fourth Lateran Council, 1215,” in Disciplinary Decrees of the General Councils: Text, Translation and Commentary (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1937), 236-296.

[vii] Canon 68, J. Schroeder, “Fourth Lateran Council, 1215,” in Disciplinary Decrees, 236-296.

[viii] Canon 70, J. Schroeder, “Fourth Lateran Council, 1215,” in Disciplinary Decrees, 236-296.

Chaucer and the Internet: Revisiting the House of Fame

internet—“a network of networks” (Wikipedia)

“network: anything reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections” (Dr. Johnson; johnsonsdictionaryonline.com)

Geoffrey Chaucer is remembered as an innovator who made the first translation of one of his contemporary Petrarch’s sonnets into English, and who may have initiated the now-universal association of St. Valentine’s Day with romantic love.  He may also, in his poetic dream vision The House of Fame, have given us a premonition of the staggering power and potential for misuse of the modern-day internet.  The narrator/protagonist of this poem, named Geoffrey, is taken to visit the goddess Fame by a giant eagle.  Her palace, which he visits first, is impressive but disappointing, as Geoffrey fails to find what he seeks there.  In the final 250 lines of the poem, he is taken to a nearby structure, which critics at least as far back as George Lyman Kittredge[i] have referred to as the House of Rumor. This is the section of the poem that forecasts the internet as we know it today.

Standard Symbol for the Internet and World Wide Web.

The eagle chides Geoffrey on their first meeting for his introverted habit of coming home every night to spend the evening like a hermit (or scholar during pandemic lockdown) with his books. What Geoffrey needs, and what the eagle has been sent by Jupiter to help him acquire, are “tidings” of what is happening in the world outside. The Middle English word “tidinges” is glossed as “news” in the Norton Chaucer.[ii]  The University of Michigan’s online Middle English Dictionary [iii] suggests a variety of other meanings, including “report,” “information” (both specific and general), “message,” “announcement,” “gossip,” and “rumor.”  All of these taken together seem to sum up the variety of things that people today search for on the internet.

The eagle tells Geoffrey that the House of Fame is located at a point equidistant from earth, sky, and sea, so that any spoken word from any of these locations must travel there. In the grand palace of Fame herself, however, Geoffrey does not find any of the “tidings” he seeks. He is then guided to another nearby structure, the so-called House of Rumor. Geoffrey labels it a “house,” and compares it to the labyrinth built by Daedalus in Greco-Roman mythology, but the term “House of Rumor” is never used in the poem. Critics have identified Chaucer’s source for this image with the house of fame described by Ovid in the 12th book of his Metamorphoses; although Ovid does say that thousands of rumors can be found there (“milia rumorum,” line 12:55), the goddess he places in charge is Fama (Fame), not Rumor.[iv]

 The structure itself is sixty miles long, made of twigs.  The twigs are woven together in a way that suggests baskets or cages to the narrator, and he notices thousands of holes throughout the weave. This presumably circular structure, formed of interlocking strands, is eerily like the visual depictions of the internet that are produced when it is imagined as a visible structure. The very name “internet” suggests such an interlocking construction to the mind. Today, we picture the strands in diagrams of the internet as the pathways along which our information travels, but for Chaucer, it is the holes in between the twigs that allow tidings to escape.

‘The House of Rumor’ as depicted by Edward Burne-Jones in The Kelmscott Chaucer, designed by
William Morris, 1896. Image acquired from ARTSTOR.

The entire structure of this house is constantly spinning, so fast that Geoffrey is unable to enter without the eagle’s assistance, and a loud noise issues from it. The noise the house makes as it spins is described first as resembling the sound of a stone flying from a catapult or that of a strong wind, but from inside come other sounds that Chaucer calls “gigges” and “chirkinges” (lines 1942-43), which Eleanor Parker in “Chaucer’s Post-Truth World” links to “tweets” and “Twitter”—after all, the entire house has already been compared to a bird cage.[v]  The twittering sounds are presumably made by the tidings themselves, which Chaucer does seem to imagine like birds in a cage.  In all, we are presented with a bewildering sense of speed and power associated with the house, coupled with the impression that the tidings, while they may be small, have a life and energy all their own.

The only way for Geoffrey to enter the structure is with the help of the eagle, who acts like a modern search engine. When he drops Geoffrey through a window, the structure stops spinning for a moment and allows his entrance. Inside, Geoffrey finds “tidings” of every sort—news about war and peace, work and leisure, life and death, loss and gain, and even about such things as weather and the prices of goods. All the tidings are being shared from person to person among a great crowd of figures that fills the space; Geoffrey had been told earlier by the eagle that these are embodied figures representing the people who first spoke the tidings down on earth. Like a game of “telephone,” the tidings are passed from ear to ear, growing with each repetition, until when each tiding reaches its full size, it flies through a window to spread itself freely—essentially “going viral.” 

Some of the tidings Geoffrey observes are true, and some are false. Both are being spread with equal enthusiasm. We are not told how Geoffrey is able to tell the difference, but within the dream vision, it is apparently obvious. He also notices that, as they try to escape through the spaces between the twigs, sometimes two tidings will become stuck as they squeeze through the same hole, so that he sees many instances in which a true tiding and a false tiding become stuck together and intermingled so that no one henceforth will be able to separate them again. All of this seems to be a very prescient depiction of the way that information both true and false is spread on today’s internet with incredible speed, growing and changing as it is repeated so that it is very difficult to tell whether much of it is true, false, or a blend of both.

Living and working in London as he does, Geoffrey would already be positioned to hear most of the tidings spreading through his world.  The intervention of Jupiter and his giant eagle seems unnecessary just to bring Geoffrey news, and in fact he never gains any concrete tidings within the confines of the poem. The true gift that he is being given may be this, even temporary, ability to discern the difference between true and false tidings, which those who encounter the tidings after they escape the House of Rumor clearly cannot do. Nor, unfortunately, can many users of the internet in our own day.

Chaucer’s poem, which he left unfinished, does not manage to provide a satisfactory solution to the problem.  As Geoffrey is walking around listening for tidings, his attention is drawn by a loud noise in the corner where love tidings are shared. Everyone in the structure rushes to this corner, pushing and straining to hear some important announcement. In the last lines of the poem as we have it, a figure appears that Geoffrey says he cannot identify, except that “he seemed for to be/ A man of gret auctoritee” (“great authority,” lines 2157-58). As soon as a “great authority” appears, someone whose word seems to represent true and reliable information, the entire structure of the House of Rumor apparently collapses—or at least, Chaucer has no more to say about it. For hundreds of years, readers have debated Chaucer’s intended identity of this “great authority.” Users of today’s internet likewise seem unable to identify yet still seek an authoritative source of information that would have the power to quell rumor and uncertainty. If our culture could find such a universally recognized source as an alternative to our current twittering, buzzing, rumor-laden communications, many of our cultural conflicts might even vanish, like a dream in a dream vision poem.

Angela Fulk, Ph.D.
Dept. of English
SUNY Buffalo State


[i] Kittredge, George Lyman. Chaucer and His Poetry. Harvard UP, 1915.

[ii] Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Norton Chaucer. Edited by David Lyman. Norton, 2019. All quotations from Chaucer are taken from this edition.

[iii] Middle English Dictionary. Ed. Robert E. Lewis, et al. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1952-2001. Online edition in Middle English Compendium. Ed. Frances McSparran, et al.. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Library, 2000-2018. <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-english-dictionary/>. Accessed 05 May 2021.

[iv] Ovid. Metamorphoses. The Latin Library. thelatinlibrary.com. Accessed 6 May 2021.

[v] Parker, Eleanor. “Chaucer’s Post-Truth World.” History Today. historytoday.com/out-margins/chaucers-post-truth-world. Accessed 6 May 2021.