Viking Eyeliner from Sea to Sea

The first written description of the personal appearance of the Vikings comes from a letter written by tenth-century English abbot Ælfric of Eynsham:

Ic secge eac ðe, broðor Eadweard…þæt ge doð unrihtlice þæt ge ða Engliscan þeawas forlætð þe eowre fæderas heoldon and hæðenra manna þeawas lufiað…and mid ðam geswuteliað þæt ge forseoð eower cynn and eowre yldran mid þam unþeawum þonne ge him on teonan tysliað eow on Denisc, ableredum hneccan and ablendum eagum.[1]

I say likewise to you, brother Edward…that you do unrightly when you forsake the English customs which our fathers held and hold dear the customs of heathen men…and by that make manifest that you scorn our kind and our forefathers with that evil practice by which you, to their shame, dress yourself in Danish fashion, with bald neck and blinded eyes.

Bayeux Tapestry Detail
Shaved necks and blinded eyes on the Bayeux Tapestry. Image in the Public Domain.

The verb ablendan means “to blind,” and the long bangs hanging onto the foreheads and perhaps impeding the vision of certain warriors on the eleventh-century Bayeux tapestry might explain these “blinded eyes.” Other options for this “blinding” hinge on the description of the inhabitants of the city of Shalashwīq (Hedeby) given  in the later tenth century by Ibrāhīm ibn Ya’qūb al-Isrā’īlī al-Turtūshī, a native of the Cordoban city of Tortosa,[2] who noted that “both men and women [there] use a kind of indelible cosmetic to enhance the beauty of their eyes.[3]

Speculation based on this and similarly loose translations has suggested white lead or even eye drops containing the alkaloid atropine, a compound present in deadly nightshade and henbane, as the “indelible cosmetic.” Both Dionysian furies and the ladies of the medieval Spanish court knew the pupil-dilating effect of the first substance, its association with beauty suggested in the name belladonna. Called hennebane, hennedwole, or hennebelle in Middle English herbals, black henbane was used in medieval England and Viking Scandinavia, and its seeds—their psychoactive effects linked to berserker behavior—have been found in some quantity in Viking graves.

Despite the attractions of these toxic European plants, a closer look at the original text gives a reading that points in another direction. Ibrāhīm writes:

 وبها كحل مصنوع اذا اكتحلوا به لا يزول ابدا ويزيد الحسن في الرجال والنساء[4]

“…on them is fabricated kohl, if they color their eyes with it, which never vanishes and beauty increases among men and women.”

Egyptian Musicians with Kohl
Detail of Kohl-Wearing Musicians and Dancers at the Tomb of Nebamun. Image in the Public Domain.

Ibrāhīm actually describes the Danes at Hedeby as lining their eyes with kohl (كُحْل‎ kuḥl), a cosmetic widely used in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and north Africa and particularly recommended by the prophet Muhammad. Though we will likely never know how exactly the Danes “blinded” their eyes, Ibrāhīm’s description points to fascinating global connections in the tenth century, from Scandinavian raiders in England to Cordoban Jews visiting northern Germany, suggesting a more inclusive picture of history than traditional narratives tend to imagine and reminding us that the middle ages really were the crossroads of everything.

Rebecca West, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

[1] Mary Clayton, “An Edition of Ælfric’s Letter to Brother Edward,” in Early Medieval English Texts and Interpretations: Studies Presented to Donald G. Scragg, ed. Elaine M. Treharne, Susan Rosser, and D. G. Scragg (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2002), 280, 282.

[2] Schleswig, (Hedeby), now in northern Germany but even into the modern period intermittently under Danish control. The section discussed here is transmitted in the 1068 Kitāb al-masālik wa’l-mamālik (Book of Roads and Kingdoms) of Hispano-Arabic geographer, botanist, and historian Abū ‘Ubayd al-Bakrī.

[3]  Aḥmad Ibn Faḍlān, Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North, trans. Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone (London: Penguin, 2012), 163.

[4] (wa-bihā kuḥl maṣnū‘ idhā ktaḥalū bihī lā yazūlu abadan wa-yazīdu l-ḥasan fī l-rijāl wa-l-nisā’) Zakarīyā ibn Muḥammad al-Qazwīnī and Ferdinand Wüstenfeld, Zakarija Ben Muhammed Ben Mahmûd El-Cazwini’s Kosmographie, vol. 2 (Göttingen: Verlag der Dieterichschen Buchhandlung, 1849), 404. Thanks to Alexander Beihammer for his help with the Arabic text.

Arabic’s Gutenberg: Defining an Era Through the Lens of Print

As thousands of scholars make our pilgrimage to the 52nd annual meeting of the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo (known to many affectionately as “the ‘Zoo”) we look forward to the largest gathering of medievalists in North America. Over the course of yesterday (Thursday) through this Sunday, many scholars have and will make contributions to the field that amplify our knowledge and transform our critical understanding of our craft. Since I am privileged with the mic during this auspicious time, I will take this opportunity to address a fundamental question that was raised at one of yesterday’s roundtables: where and when do we locate the “Middle Ages” in a global context? In other words, how can we reevaluate our Eurocentric biases and take into account cultures around the world that don’t fit traditional definitions of medievalism?

The organizers of the Kalamazoo roundtable, the University of Virginia’s DeVan Ard and Justin Greenlee, created a forum to discuss the fraught term “medieval” from various perspectives, including Buddhist art in China (Dorothy Wong), the pre-Islamic Jahiliyyah period (Aman Nadhiri) and the challenges of accurately representing the Middle Ages in the classroom (Christina Normore). The speakers and moderator Zach Stone strove to challenge the artificial boundaries that are often used to constrict the idea of the medieval and to consider, in the words of Nadhiri, “the Middle Ages as a period without the parameters of time.” I offer here an adapted version of my own presentation, which considers the limits of the term “medieval” through the history of the printing press in the Muslim world.

Of all the metrics that various disciplines use to demarcate the end of the Middle Ages—shifts in military tactics, game-changing historical figures, scientific discoveries, etc.—the arrival of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in Germany is often seen as the critical moment when Western culture was ‘reborn’ into a new era. Medievalists know well that the effects of this new technology were not as immediate or as clear cut as many outside the field sometimes think, but the ability to disseminate materials more efficiently and more widely led to changes in the economy, literacy, and writing practices rivaled only by the recent progress of the digital age.

The first printed edition of the Qur’an, printed in Venice by Paganino & Alessandro Paganini​ between 1537-38​.

The history of movable type in Arabic provides a point of departure for wider discussions of how to bookend a historical era in the Middle East and North Africa as well as other predominantly Muslim populations. Although the printing press made its way to the Ottoman Empire not long after its introduction in Europe, it was almost immediately forbidden to print in Arabic. Among the various political, social, and theological reasons for this legislation, I argue that the sanctity of the Arabic language itself created resistance to movable type. According to Islam, Arabic is the direct language of God communicated through the angel Gabriel. Many believe that translations of the Qur’an are no longer the holy book, and throughout the early centuries of Islam there were meticulously-enforced rules for the style of writing that could be used for certain texts.

The clumsy attempts of early printers to negotiate the connectors, diacritics, and shape-changing letters of Arabic writing could not hope to represent the word with the accuracy and beauty that it required. Continuing attempts to this day to create functional Arabic fonts and Turkey’s twentieth-century switch from Arabic to Roman script demonstrate that these challenges are still being negotiated. This narrative of technical and literary development, so vastly different from that of Western Europe, offers a lens through which we can consider other intellectual and cultural differences that complicate comparisons between Western Europe and the Arab world.

Working in the Archives – Manuscript Research at the Khizana al-Hasaniyya, Rabat

One of the major manuscript collections in Morocco is currently the property of His Majesty, King Mohammad VI. The Khizana al-Hasaniyya or the Bibliothèque Royale as it is known, is housed in the royal palace in Rabat and directly attached to the royal residences. The Researcher Annex where most guests of the library work, is detached from the palace yet located within the palatial environs.

Due to the personal nature and physical location of this library, it is necessary for the aspiring researcher to observe security protocol and to put their best professional foot forward. Like many things in Morocco, the rules will not be explained in detail but everyone will act as though you know them. When in doubt, ask questions.

Basic Details

The Khizana al-Hasaniyya is part of the Qasr al-Malik or Palais Royale in Rabat and consists of the main manuscript library attached to the royal residences and the Researcher Annex. The Researcher Annex is opened from 9am-4pm Monday – Friday. Most work is done in the Researcher Annex, a new building completed sometime after 2014 and staffed with computers for manuscript consultation. Be advised that electronic devices such as phones, tablets, and laptops are forbidden in the Researcher Annex, and all bags must be stored in the small cupboard in the corner of the Researcher Annex.

At the time of the visit, the Khizana al-Hasaniyya manuscript library was open only to those researchers with specific codicological research though it is possible for one of the librarians to give you a tour of the Khizana. The manuscripts they have on display are stunning, from early Qur’ans to musicology texts to a copy of Ibn Khaldun’s al-Muqaddima copied by one of his students and annotated in the margins by Ibn Khaldun himself.

Researcher cards can be obtained by contacting the director of the Khizania al-Hasaniyya, Dr. Ahmed Chouqui Binebine (a.binebine@gmail.com), and requesting a meeting with him to discuss your research. Dr. Binebine speaks Darija (Moroccan dialect of Arabic), Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic or MSA) and French; if you do not speak these languages, it is best to arrange your meeting with the help of another scholar with current researcher privileges; that way, they can advocate on your behalf while translating as needed.

If you arrive in Morocco and you don’t have someone in country who can pull strings for you at the Hasaniyya, contact Dr. James Miller, the director of MACECE in Rabat.  He is used to helping Americans make connections with Moroccans and may know someone who can help.

Bring your passport and a copy of the passport face page and the page with your date of entry to Morocco or your Carte de Séjour, your research clearance and/or Lettre D’Attestation, and two passport sized photographs to your meeting. Unlike the BRNM, there is no fee associated with this card. It is unclear as to whether or not researcher cards are valid for a specific amount of time or if this time can be negotiated.

For the record, I was able to gain a researcher card valid for three months. This card is an index sized paper card written in Arabic and stamped with the official seal; you will need it for subsequent visits to the library.

During your meeting, you can also request a copy of the General Index for the Khizana al-Hasaniyya along with other catalogs relevant to your research.  This is invaluable as copies of the General Index are quite hard to come by in the United States (Emory and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have copies of the General Index).

The General Index of Manuscripts for the Khizana al-Hasaniyya. All entries are in Arabic.

While the General Index just lists the manuscripts alphabetically and with little information about the manuscript, the more in-depth catalogs, such as the catalogs on Ash’arite manuscripts and those concerned with Islamic law, are much more detailed.  You can request copies of these subject-specific indexes from Dr. Binebine.

Additional manuscript catalogs; text in Arabic.

Dr. Binebine and other librarians at the Khizana may also give you additional texts, such as their publications on codicology. Dr. Binebine’s 2015 book, Histoire des bibliotheques au Maroc, is worth having for any medievalist or manuscript specialist.

The dress code is business wear, with many Moroccan researchers wearing traditional Moroccan clothes such as djellabas. Looking like you have a valid reason to go to the royal palace will help convince the guards and employees that you are not some random tourist hoping to see the king.

For those spending the day or at least the lunch hour at the Khizana al-Hasaniyya, there is a small arcade opposite the soccer field near the Researcher Annex where you can get a pizza (15 MAD) and fresh orange juice (10MAD) as well as a sandwich on occasion or snacks from the nearby hanout (kiosk). It is best to be discreet about drinking water in the Researcher Annex just to avoid any problems.

Getting There

The Qasr al-Mālik is a massive compound located at the end of the Avenue Mohammed V in downtown Rabat and is guarded around the clock. For your first visit, you will need to present your passport and tell the guard that you have an appointment with the director of the Khizana; the guard will then phone to confirm your visit. For subsequent visits, saying that you are a researcher (chercheur/chercheuse) at the library and presenting your researcher card is enough to get in, though it never hurts to have your passport and your Lettre D’Attestation in case someone asks for it.

Unlike European palaces, the Qasr al-Mālik is more akin to a city within a city, making it difficult for the first time visitor to get to where they are going. For the person going alone, it is best to take a petit taxi to the main gate, Bab Soufara, and then have the cab driver continue through the gate and take you directly to the Khizana.

NB: Make sure the driver takes you to the right spot; simply asking for the Khizana al-Hasaniyya might bring you to the Researcher Annex or it might bring you to the Khizana itself. The same is true when it comes to asking for directions inside the compound. If the cab driver wants to leave you at the gate, it is a 10-15 minute walk to the Researcher Annex from Bab Soufara.

Conducting Research

As previously mentioned, the physical manuscripts are largely off-limits to most researchers, meaning that the majority of manuscript work is now done digitally. To request a copy of the manuscript, you will need to fill out a small request form at the desk in the Researcher Annex and give it to the librarian sitting there; they will then call up the digital copies of the manuscript and load them on one of the computers lining the walls. When the files are ready, the librarian will call you over to the computer.

To request digital copies of the manuscripts, you will need to write directly to the director of the Khizana, Dr. Binebeine, and state what it is you want and why you need it. Do not email Dr. Binebine but present a printed and signed copy of your letter to the librarian at the Researcher Annex and ask them to give it to Dr. Binebine. The librarian will then convey your request and, if it is approved, a digital copy of the manuscript will be given to you within 24-48 hours.

Prior to 2013, digital copies were presented to researchers on CD but as of March 2017, a colleague was able to load the files directly onto a USB stick.

NB: One might be limited to the number of folia they are allowed to request per manuscript. Some have reported that they were only able to request 10 folia of a manuscript, while others said they were able to get 40-50 folia. As such, plan your requests and research accordingly.

Language

The Khizana al-Hasaniyya runs on Arabic, especially Darija. The various manuscript indexes, from the General Index to the more thematic indexes of manuscripts, are in Arabic, along with the manuscript request forms. Researchers should have a solid command of the Arabic script and decent penmanship in order to correctly write out their requests.

Spoken French can get one by in a pinch, especially if one’s vocabulary related to manuscripts is not as strong in Darija or Fusha (MSA) as it is in French. For those researchers who are Caucasian or black, the staff may speak to you in somewhat broken French, assuming that you either come from France (if white) or one of the francophone African countries (if black).

The computers in the Researcher Annex all run Microsoft OS and are in French, not English. The screens are touch screens, meaning that you can pinch and zoom in on the images, as well as swipe back and forth. However, most of the other researchers in the Annex use the mouse so it’s probably best to follow their lead.

When it comes to writing a manuscript request letter, the letter must be in Arabic (MSA) or French. If you are unsure about the protocol or language within the letter, ask the librarian in the Researcher Annex if they have a copy of a request on file for you to use.

Misc.

The Royal Palace is a trip for a medievalist not in the least because it is a functioning palace on the scale of medieval administrative cities.  Those who live on the palace grounds and who work there inherited the position from their family members, many of whom may have been part of the royal slave retinues just under two hundred years ago.  To see the Royal Palace in Rabat gives one a good appreciation for the scale of medieval administrative cities like Baghdad, Samarra, Qayrawan, Cairo, Fez, and Marrakech and for the way in which such palaces were cities in their own right.

For additional resources on the Hasaniyya as well as other manuscript libraries in Morocco, see J. Hendrickson and S. Adil, “A Guide to Arabic Manuscript Libraries in Morocco: Further Developments,” (2013)