Perceptions of Islam in the Carmen in Victoriam Pisanorum—By Matt King

The Carmen in Victoriam Pisanorum (“Song for the Triumph of the Pisans”) is a poem written in commemoration of a joint Pisan-Genoese expedition to the city of Mahdia, located in modern-day Tunisia.[1] This attack took place in 1087 with the support of Pope Victor III and resulted in the sacking of Mahdia and its suburb of Zawila, which at the time were controlled by the Zirid emir, Tamīm ibn al-Mu’izz.[2] Christian forces, laden with the spoils of war, returned triumphantly to Italy and used their newfound wealth to construct commemorative churches. A number of Arabic and Latin primary sources testify to these events, although the Carmen represents the most detailed Latin source and provides scholars with a unique lens through which to view Pisan perceptions of Islam and interfaith relations.

Previously, historians have primarily used the Carmen to contextualize the development and trajectory of crusading ideology during the eleventh century. While we could consider ad nauseum whether or not this 1087 expedition was a crusade, I contend that this source is valuable beyond such debates. Specifically, an examination of this text will allow historians to consider Latin Christian perspectives on Islam and its adherents during the period immediately preceding the First Crusade. In addition, this analysis will complement research on Pisa and its relationship with the Islamic states of North Africa. Pisan interests in North Africa have often been represented as primarily commercial, with Pisan military activities in the region receiving less attention.[3] While there certainly was interreligious coexistence and cooperation between Pisa and these Islamic states, the Carmen shows another side of the story, one in which religiously charged rhetoric is applied to violent ends.

In the course of this paper, I will provide a perspective on Pisan identity during the eleventh century that helps to reframe some modern scholarship that has focused on the city’s peaceful commercial relationships with Muslim communities of the Mediterranean. The anonymous author of the Carmen in Victoriam Pisanorum has a pervasively negative view of Islam and its adherents. He compares the followers of Islam to a series of Old Testament and classical villains, going so far as to equate the city of Mahdia and its people with the biblical “Midianites.” He further considers Islam, led by its heretical founder Muhammad, to be akin to Arianism as a heresy that threatens Christianity. Although the author recognizes a distinction between the “Saracen” supporters of Tamīm and neighboring Arab tribesmen, his knowledge of Islam and its followers is limited to this simple division. Of greater importance to the author is praising combat against these Muslims in a time when Pisa was beginning to assert commercial power in the Mediterranean.

The topic of medieval European perceptions of Islam has a rich historiographical tradition. Writing in the mid-twentieth century, scholars like Norman Daniel and Richard Southern advocated their own models of the ways in which Latin Christians viewed Islam that overemphasized writings from northern Europe and Spain but glossed over regional differences in the rest of Europe.[4] However, more recent work has begun to recognize how areas like the Italian and Iberian peninsulas, where there was more interaction between Christian and Muslim populations than northern Europe, developed accordingly different perspectives on Islam.[5] This trend of recognizing the diversity of authors writing about Islam has manifested itself most clearly in the study of First Crusade chronicles, as the crusader conquest of Jerusalem brought about increased interest in and writings about Islam.[6] However, Joshua Birk argues that these studies remain inadequate. Although scholars have recognized how depictions of Muslims differ in these chronicles (particularly the Gesta Francorum), they have not adequately explored “the importance of regional background in shaping the attitudes of the author.”[7] This methodological perspective can easily be applied to the Carmen, which was written only ten years before the First Crusade. Therefore, this study will situate the poem firmly in the eleventh-century context in which it was written.

This approach of carefully historicizing and regionalizing texts requires us to examine the Carmen‘s perspective of Islam on its own terms rather than imposing anachronistic categories upon it. Kenneth Wolf argues that previous historians have limited themselves in their investigations on perceptions of medieval Islam by treating it as only a religion. However, this perspective does not always align with the more complicated perspective of medieval authors, who saw Islam as a larger political and cultural phenomenon. To Wolf, “it would seem appropriate to broaden our working definition of Islam and, by extension, amplify our notion of what constitutes a proper view of Islam.”[8] Doing this will allow us to utilize the categories applied by Christian authors and, by extension, provide us with a more nuanced perspective of how they interpreted Islam. By applying this methodological approach to the Carmen, we will better understand regional variations of Latin Christian perceptions of Islam in the years directly preceding the First Crusade.

Beyond the scope of arguments about Christian perceptions of Islam, the Carmen has been studied in a number of contexts. Of particular significance to this examination is Georges Jehel’s L’Italie et le Maghreb au moyen âge, which chronicles the relationship between the Italian Peninsula and North Africa during the Middle Ages. To Jehel, the Pisan-Genoese expedition of 1087 played a pivotal role in the assertion of Christian maritime and commercial dominance in the Mediterranean.[9] In the eleventh century, Pisa entered into conflict with local powers, both in Italy and North Africa, in order to expand their commercial sphere. Using the Carmen as his main source of evidence, Jehel argues that the sack of Mahdia proved the capacity of Pisa and Genoa to compete militarily with their North African counterparts and take offensive actions against state-sponsored piracy.[10]

Based on this argument, we are thus confronted with an image of Pisa as a burgeoning commercial center in the Mediterranean that used military force to ensure its economic prosperity. Karen Mathews has explored this often-thin line between peaceful commerce and violence. She uses both the Carmen and material evidence in Pisa to explore Pisan identity as a hybrid of holy warrior and trader. Through the study of ceramic bowls (Bacini) on Pisan churches, Mathews demonstrates that the Pisans developed an identity based around ideas of crusading, trading, and civic pride during the eleventh century. Bacini are emblematic of this, for they were imported to Pisa from the Islamic world through both commerce and pillaging. Pisans decorated their churches with these bowls to highlight Pisa’s success in both trade and holy war, two concepts that worked in tandem, conveying both “political interaction and cultural exchange” that were “essential for the definition of Pisan civic identity.”[11] Mathews’ argument is compelling because it offers a way to reconcile the proliferation of both trade and violence between Pisa and the Muslim states of the Mediterranean during the eleventh century.

Finally, although it will not be examined in-depth in this paper, it is nonetheless important to note some of the scholarship that has considered the Carmen in the context of crusading ideology. In his highly influential Origins of the Idea of Crusade, Carl Erdmann argues that the Pisan-Genoese campaign against Mahdia was “executed entirely as a crusade” due to the presence of a Papal Banner, Pope Victor II’s support of the expedition, soldiers receiving the Eucharist, and the penance that soldiers offered to God before the expedition.[12] H.E.J. Cowdrey expands upon Erdmann’s research and argues that the Carmen has a place in the foundation of crusading ideas, which Cowdrey argues would later manifest in the mind of future Pope Urban II.[13]

While these scholars have all helped nuance our understanding of the Carmen, Pisan identity, and eleventh-century crusading rhetoric, none of their work considers the poem’s detailed treatment of Islam and those who practice it in Ifrīqiyā.[14] This paper will therefore fill a historiographical gap by putting these perspectives in conversation with larger issues of Pisan identity and interfaith violence in the eleventh-century Mediterranean.

The Text and Historical Background
The Carmen in Victoriam Pisanorum survives in one anonymous manuscript from the Bibliothèque royale Albert I in Brussels. Although the manuscript itself dates from the twelfth century, scholars agree that the poem itself was composed directly after the 1087 campaign but before the First Crusade (1096-1099).[15] The Carmen is written in a broken “Lombardic” meter that comprises rhythmic trochaic tetrameters, although this meter often fails.[16] The author’s expansive knowledge of the ancient world and the Old Testament indicates that he was probably an educated cleric. Furthermore, his “fervid tone of urban patriotism” likely means that he was a Pisan writing soon after the event.[17] Although it is unclear whether the author of the Carmen actually took part in the expedition, his specific details about the campaign indicate at the very least that he had access to individuals who went on it.

At the time of the 1087 campaign, Ifrīqīya was in a state of economic and population decline following a century of political fragmentation and the invasions of the Banū Hilāl in 1057.[18] Before these invasions, a group of Berbers called the Zirids held control of Mahdia and a number of other coastal cities in Ifrīqīya. However, the Hilalian invasions destroyed whatever trace of unity was left in the Zirid dynasty, confining their rulers to Mahdia and eliminating their inland possessions.[19] Tamīm, the ruler of Mahdia during the 1087 campaign, actively sought to expand his possessions beyond this one coastal city. The Arabic sources tell how, at the time of the invasion, he was besieging the nearby cities of Gabes and Sfax.[20] In addition, Tamīm engaged in extensive raids and piracy against Italian Christians, the memory of which is evoked at length in the Carmen.

Meanwhile, in Pisa, the late eleventh century saw the beginnings of a city commune with officials from the urban aristocracy.[21] This aristocracy included Countess Matilda of Tuscany and Ugo Vicecomes, whose death is eulogized at length in the Carmen. In addition, Pisa was home to a burgeoning “voluntary mercantile organization,” whose commercial interests were threatened by the actions of Tamīm and provided enough motivation for attacking his most valuable city.[22] The Pisans furthermore had a record of military action against Muslims in Ifrīqīya, briefly seizing the city of Bone in 1034 and helping the Norman Robert Guiscard in his conquest of Sicily in 1063.

Aiding the Pisans in the conquest of Mahdia was their neighbor to the north, Genoa. Although the Carmen indicates that the Genoese played a prominent role in the expedition, there is little other evidence that considers their motivation for participating in this venture.[23] Steven Epstein speculates that commercial interests drove Genoese participation in the Mahdia attack, as the state-sponsored piracy of Tamīm likely affected both Genoese and Pisan trading interests in the Mediterranean.[24] United in their economic desires, this joint venture to North Africa would improve both of their commercial prospects. Cowdrey further speculates that Pisa and Genoa also sought to improve their standing with the newly reformed Papacy by attacking the Muslim stronghold of Mahdia.[25]

The author of the Carmen was thus writing in the midst of conflicts between burgeoning Italian commercial powers and Muslim states in the Mediterranean. However, while there was cooperation between Pisa and Genoa in 1087, I would be hesitant to categorize the Pisan author’s perspectives on Islam and Ifrīqīya as one that also reflects Genoese attitudes. Although Pisa and Genoa were in similar economic and political situations during the late-eleventh century, the Carmen tells the story of the 1087 sack on Mahdia from a Pisa-centric perspective and elevates Pisan leaders and triumphs over all others. In the absence of any other detailed sources about this expedition, we are thus unfortunately forced to privilege the perspective of one anonymous Pisan over all others, Genoese or otherwise.

Islam and its Adherents in the Carmen
Before considering the Carmen‘s depiction of Islam and the Pisan attack on Mahdia, it is important to bear in mind that this poem is a work of literature, intentionally modeled after classical and Biblical stories. From the opening stanza, the author makes clear the significance of the Pisan victory at Mahdia by establishing its triumphant relationship to the past. He compares the sacking of Mahdia to other famous victories in history—Moses over the Pharaohs, Gideon over the Midianites, and the Romans over Carthage to name a few. As such, we must be cautious with the numbers given in the Carmen. What is more important is how these numbers and the epic stories around which the author constructed his narrative informed his opinion about Islam and its adherents.

Over the course of the Carmen, the author situates the Pisan campaign in the greater history of Rome. He describes how the Pisan triumph “enlarges” the victory that Rome once received for conquering Carthage.[26] In addition, the author wishes the victory of the Pisans to be remembered like those of Scipio Africanus, once again evoking memory of Roman expeditions into North Africa. Finally, when describing the destruction of Mahdia, the Carmen compares the collapsing of its one thousand ships as similar to the fire that once engulfed Troy. These passages not only reveal the author’s knowledge of the history of Rome (likely the Aeneid as well), but also his willingness to position Pisa as the inheritors of this triumphant past. The similarity between the Pisan conquest of Mahdia and Roman conquest of Carthage are thus situated in the same historical trajectory.

Although significant for helping to contextualize the Pisans’ expedition in the greater narrative of Roman history, the Carmen‘s references to ancient Rome are surpassed by its references to the Old Testament. In the opening stanzas of the open, the author relates how the Pisan conquest bears resemblance to the miracle of Gideon, which culminated in the destruction of the Midianite kings Zebah and Zalmunna. Perhaps due to both the similarity in their spelling and their triumphant destruction, the author equates Mahdia and its inhabitants (Madianites) with the inhabitants of ancient Midian. Thus, a clear line is drawn between Old Testament peoples upon whom God wrought destruction and the contemporary Muslim inhabitants of Mahdia.

Further allusions to the Old Testament feature prominently in the pre-battle speech given by Bishop Benedictus. He equates the Pisan task set before them as one similar to David bringing down Goliath. The walls of Mahdia are equated to the walls of Jericho. Similarly, Benedictus recounts the story of Maccabeus and his victory made possible through God alone. Tamīm, the ruler of Mahdia is nothing more than the scornful Pharaoh. As the battle outside Mahdia begins, the author of the Carmen invokes Michael and Peter before mentioning the defeat of Senucherib at the hands of God’s strongest angel.[27] Finally, the author relates how the “Hebrews plunder Egypt a second time,” during the sack of Mahdia before, like Moses, the Pisans crossed over the great sea.[28]

These frequent references to the Old Testament make clear the Biblical tradition in which the Pisans are acting. Tamīm and his people take the form of a hybridized Old Testament villain who feels the wrath of God – Pharaoh and Goliath, holed up in the mighty walls of Jericho. In contrast, the Pisans are a Gideon/David/Moses combination who, through the favor of God, are able to topple their adversary. Such a description makes clear the deep religious roots that run throughout this story. In this narrative, it is impossible to separate the sacking of Mahdia or the author’s perception of Islam from this ancient history.

In tandem with his equation of Mahdia and its inhabitants as villains of the Old Testament, the author of the Carmen personifies the city of Mahdia as a hub of impiety and the facilitator of a terrible lifestyle.[29] In his perspective, the people of Mahdia (Madianites) are indistinguishable from the people whom Gideon fought according to the Book of Judges (also Madianites), both having been “marked by the Midianite name.”[30] In turn, the city of Mahdia itself “nurtured”[31] its inhabitants in wicked ways, making it not only the home to a wretched people, but also causing the city itself to be “wicked.”[32]

However, the author also recognizes Mahdia as a city of immense wealth. Located along the coast, the author notes that Mahdia and its suburb of Zawila were very rich cities, complete with port facilities, a large city wall, and a large fleet.[33] The quantity of the booty carried off by the victorious Christians is a testament to the city’s wealth. Indeed, Mahdia’s size must also have been vast in the mind of the author, given that the Christian forces supposedly managed to free over one hundred thousand captives from the city.[34]

To the author, the entire continent on which Mahdia is located is a place to be despised. According to Cowdrey’s transcription of the Carmen, the opening line of stanza 14 reads, “Hos conduxit Ihesus Christus quem necabat Africa” (“Jesus Christ, whom Africa killed, united them”).[35] However, Cowdrey questions the use of the word necebat in this passage and suggests that the word negabat (to deny) would make more sense.[36] It is impossible to know with the survival of one lone manuscript which meaning is intended, however, negabat certainly makes more sense in the overall context of the poem. The author’s emphasis on the people of Africa spurning Christianity and their overall equation with Old Testament non-believers fits with negebat more than necebat. Furthermore, the author has an expansive knowledge of the Bible, as demonstrated throughout the poem, so he was bound to know the story of Jesus’s death and crucifixion. In this context, then, he perceives Africa as a land of unbelievers, where the teachings of Islam had fully taken hold.[37]

While the author relates Islam to the Old Testament and classical history, he thinks that Islamic doctrine itself is more firmly embedded in the Christian heretical tradition. The author mentions how some of the Pisan soldiers devastated a mosque and slaughtered one thousand priests of Muhammad, a man was a “heresiarch more powerful than Arius, whose error even now remains in a large area of the world.”[38] This statement provides a powerful lens through which to view the Carmen‘s perspectives on Islamic doctrine. The author considers Muhammad in the same light as Arius, linking Islam to a form of heretical Christianity that prospered under the Goths and Vandals. Thus, the Pisan and Genoese soldiers can be regarded not only as heroes comparable to those of the Old Testament, but also as warriors fighting against the heretical enemies of Christianity.

The only inhabitant of Africa explicitly named in the Carmen is the ruler of Mahdia, Tamīm (Latin Timinus). He is introduced as a “wicked Saracen, similar to the Antichrist, a most cruel serpent.”[39] With a thirst for worldly glory, he devastated so many lands through piracy that “there is not a place in the whole world nor island in the sea, which the dreadful faithlessness of Tamīm has not disturbed.”[40] Tamīm not only disturbs the land with his faithlessness, he also takes captives from these lands. The Carmen mentions on several occasions the lamentable fate of the captives that Tamīm held in Mahdia, who cried out to both God and the Pisans for help.[41] Tamīm’s faithlessness, manifested in his attacks throughout the Mediterranean and the taking of captives, provides motivation to the Pisans for their expedition.

In addition, throughout this narrative, Tamīm is plotting and crafty, rarely engaging his Christian opponents in battle unless it is through an ambush or with the assistance of his attack lions. It is only when he has been contained in his heavily fortified position in the citadel of Mahdia that he finally negotiates for peace. While these descriptions of Tamīm are overwhelmingly negative, the author of the Carmen does occasionally highlight his strength in arms. Tamīm has “astuteness” for power and commands the strongest peoples of Saracens from Mahdia and Zawila.[42]

Apart from Tamīm, the remaining populations of Africa are considered en masse. Earlier, we explored how the author considered Mahdia and its inhabitants in the greater scope of Old Testament and classical history. However, the author also considered them in ethnic and tribal terms more in keeping with the time in which he lived. While it is reasonable to assume by modern standards that these populations in Ifrīqīya were a diverse array of Sanhāja Berbers, Zenāta Berbers, Hilalian Arabs, all of which were further divided by a number of local tribal affiliations, it is more important to consider the categories into which the author of the Carmen placed these people, most prominently Saracenus, Agareni, and Paganus.[43]

The term Saracenus was used in antiquity to describe the people from the area of Arabia Felix (“Happy Arabia” or “Fertile Arabia”), the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula. However, its connotation in the Middle Ages would evolve into a pejorative term for people outside of the Latin Christian tradition and the enemies of Christianity. Most often the term applied to Muslim populations, although it could be used for other groups as well. For example, the crusade chronicler Vincent of Prague uses the term to refer to the pagans of Eastern Europe and the Middle English romance King Horn (mid-thirteenth century) calls all the enemies of Christianity Saracenus.[44] In the context of the Carmen, the Saraceni in Africa are established as a distinctive group outside of the Christian tradition.

In addition, the author of the Carmen uses the word Agareni (Hagarenes) to refer to those who worship Muhammad as well as those who live in Mahdia and Zawila.[45] This word, which has its roots in the Biblical story of Abraham’s slave “Hagar,” became a term in the early Middle Ages for Muslims.[46] The word was also commonly used in the Greek language not only to refer to Muslims, but also villeins, as is shown in a series of twelfth-century Sicilian documents.[47] However, in the context of the Carmen, the word Agareni appears to have a purely religious connotation, as the author of the poem refers to them specifically as those who “invoke Muhammad.”[48] As a brief addition, it should be noted that Alex Metcalfe argues that the term Agareni “is not attested elsewhere outside Greek to refer to the Muslims as a religiously distinct group.”[49] However, the use of this phrase in the Carmen disproves this assertion, since its very definition is based on the worship of Muhammad.

Finally, the term Paganus is used to refer to the inhabitants of Mahdia and Zawila. This word, which evolved during Late Antiquity into a pejorative label for an individual or group of individuals outside of the Christian community, takes on a similar meaning in the Carmen in describing the people of Ifrīqīya.[50] Despite the individual nuances and etymologies of these words, the Saraceni, Agareni, and Pagani of the Carmen can be largely seen as different labels for the same group—the Muslim followers of Tamīm and the ones responsible for devastating areas across Europe under his guidance. Differences between these labels are minor, for they all represent people against whom Christians fight, leaving little room for the recognition of heterogeneity among them.

However, there is one important distinction to make. The term Saracenus has a further connotation, a communal or ethnic one, because the Carmen refers to Tamīm holding control over many of the strongest gentes (singular gens) of Saracens.[51] This word, rendered as “people” in my translation, does not have a negative connotation as the previously discussed categories do. On multiple occasions, the author of the Carmen uses gens to refer to the Saracens, the people of Pisa, and the Arabs.

In this examination of the Carmen’s portrayal of Islam and its adherents, the distinction made between the Saracens and Arabs (Arabes or gentes Arrabites) is significant.[52] The Arabs play a relatively minor role in the Carmen, only appearing in five stanzas near the end of the poem.[53] After the Pisans’ initial victory over Tamīm and his Saracens, the Carmen recounts how Arab peoples entered Zawila while the Pisans were waiting to see the value of their promised booty. However, unlike the description of the Saracens, which is grounded in negativity and disdain, the author looks more favorably on the Arabs. He is particularly complimentary of their skill on horseback, noting how they are swift on foot but even swifter on horseback when they have the help of the east wind.[54] Furthermore, he acknowledges that they are “instructed and clever”[55] when executing tactics of feigned flight in battle.[56] Despite the strength of the Arabs in their hit-and-run tactics, he acknowledges that they are quick to flee and unwilling to fight in pitched battles. This propensity to flee contributes to their defeat at the hands of the Pisans in a short battle outside of Zawila.[57]

The author of the Carmen thus recognizes a difference between Saracens and Arabs in Ifrīqīya. However, rather than try to misconstrue this one relatively broad division of people as indicative of some expansive knowledge of the inhabitants of North Africa or attempt to make the Carmen‘s categories fit into various anachronisms like “Berber,” suffice it to say that the author had very limited knowledge of the peoples of Ifrīqīya. Despite Pisa’s commercial involvement in North Africa, in this poem, the author is far more concerned depicting Muslims as the enemies of Christians and to contextualize the Pisan expedition to Mahdia in the larger narratives of the Old Testament and classical world.

The Carmen‘s portrayal of Islam and its adherents is multifaceted. The author grounds the Pisan attack on Mahdia as an epic confrontation akin to Old Testament and classical tales. In this interpretation, Tamīm and the Muslims of Ifrīqīya are the unholy Midianities, the Carthaginians, Pharaoh, and Goliath. Furthermore, the doctrine of the Muslims is presented as a form of heretical Christianity akin to Arianism, further moving the enemies of the Pisans away from anything that could be called holy. The author’s negative depiction of the land of Africa itself thus presents us with an area and people of the utmost evil.

However, it is important to bear in mind that the Carmen is a work of triumphant, poetic literature. The author is making a conscious attempt to contextualize the Pisan/Genoese voyage in a greater tradition of God-willed triumph, so any attempt to use this work to consider broader Pisan attitudes toward and knowledge of Islam must be undertaken cautiously. Despite the Carmen‘s scathing depiction of Islam, the author still knows enough about the communities of North Africa to distinguish between Arabs, renowned for their skills on horseback, and Saracens. Regardless, it would be a mistake to see this Pisan author as one who was well informed about Islamic doctrines and the people of Ifrīqīya. Of greater importance to the author is to reinforce the righteousness of the attacking Christian armies and to degrade their sinister enemies.

If we cautiously take the Carmen as indicative of general trends in Pisan perceptions of Islam and Africa, we thus can see an image of Pisa as a city with some knowledge of medieval Ifrīqīya and as one that used this knowledge to nurture some image of righteous war against Muslims, grounded in perceptions of Islam as akin to villains from Old Testament and classical stories. While this image might seem contradictory, given Pisa’s extensive history of trade with Muslims on the Mediterranean, this need not be the case. As advocated by Karen Mathews, the Carmen helps to establish Pisan civic identity as one of both holy warrior and trader. While other textual and visual sources highlight the commercial aspect of Pisan interaction in the Mediterranean, the Carmen provides another side of the story, a side that emphasizes contempt for Islam and its adherents.

Matt King

Matt King is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Minnesota, specializing in the history of the Crusades. His research focuses on the Norman “Kingdom of Africa” and interreligious interactions in the medieval Mediterranean.


Original Translation of the Carmen in Victoriam Pisanorum[58]

Note: The English text below is an original translation of the Carmen by the author. The Latin text below is a copy of the transcription found in Cowdrey, H.E.J. “The Mahdia Campaign of 1087.” The English Historical Review 92, no. 362 (January 1977): 1–29. See his apparatus criticus in this article for notes on the manuscript, references to the Bible and classical texts, as well as other anomalies. All notes included in this edition are my own.[59]

Matt King translation 1 Matt King translation 2 Matt King translation 3 Matt King translation 4 Matt King translation 5 Matt King translation 6 Matt King translation 7 Matt King translation 8 Matt King translation 9 Matt King translation 10 Matt King translation 11 Matt King translation 12 Matt King translation 13 Matt King translation 14 Matt King translation 15



[1] The term that will be used to characterize this area is Ifrīqīya, which comprises modern-day Tunisia, western Libya, and eastern Algeria.

[2] The Zirids were a Sanhaja Berber dynasty (part of the Kutama tribe) that ruled Ifrīqīya from 973–1148. For the initial part of their reign, they acted as governors on behalf of the Fatimids and reigned from their newly-constructed capital of Ashir. However, the Zirids became increasingly autonomous until they switched their allegiance to the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad and adopted Sunni Islam in 1049. Following the invasions of the Banū Hilāl tribes from Egypt, Zirid rule was reduced to several cities located along the Ifrīqīyan coast, with their capital situated in Mahdia. The Zirids were finally overthrown by the Normans in 1148. For the general histories of this time, see Ibn Khaldun, Kitāb al-’ibar, 8 vols. (Beirut, 2001), vol. 5, Ibn al-Athīr, al-Kamil fi’l-Ta’rikh, 13 vols. (Beirut, 1966), vol. 11.

[3] In 1157, Pisa became the first Italian city to make a commercial treaty with the Almohads, the first of many contracts that would help solidify Pisa’s commercial strength in the Mediterranean. M. L. de Mas Latrie, Traités de paix et de commerce et documents divers concernant les relations des chrétiens avec les arabes de l’Afrique septentrionale au moyen age (Paris: Henri Plon, 1866), pp. 22–25.

[4] In these studies, Italian authors outside of the Papacy are largely neglected and the Carmen does not play a major role in their arguments. Norman Daniel, Islam and the West: The Making of an Image, 2nd ed. (Chatham: Oneworld Publications Ltd, 1993). Richard Southern, Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962).

[5] John Tolan, Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), pp. 134–37. William Watt, Muslim-Christian Encounters: Perceptions and Misperceptions (New York: Routledge, 1991).

[6] The first crusade is traditionally seen as a watershed moment in depictions of Muslims. In particular, these authors begin to see Saracens as heretics instead of the previously held view that Saracens were idolaters. Tolan, Saracens, pp. 134–37.

[7] Joshua Birk, “Imagining the Enemy: Southern Italian Perceptions of Islam at the Time of the First Crusade,” in Just Wars, Holy Wars, and Jihads: Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Encounters and Exchanges, ed. Sohail Hashmi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 103.

[8] Wolf’s argument is made in the context of Christian views of Islam in early medieval Spain, but his fundamental idea of treating Islam as the medieval sources saw it can be applied to other regions and time periods. Kenneth Wolf, “Christian Views of Islam in Early Medieval Spain,” in Medieval Christian Perceptions of Islam: A Book of Essays, ed. John Victor Tolan (New York: Garland Publishing, 1996), p. 85.

[9] Georges Jehel, L’Italie et le Maghreb au moyen âge: conflits et échanges du VIIe au XVe siècle (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2001), p. 41.

[10] Jehel’s analysis of the Carmen is for the establishing of a narrative rather than the construction of religious identities. He complements this narrative with the work of relevant Arabic authors. Ibid., pp. 40–45.

[11] Karen Rose Mathews, “Other Peoples’ Dishes: Islamic Bacini on Eleventh-Century Churches in Pisa,” Gesta 53.1 (2014): 5 and 23.

[12] Carl Erdmann, The Origin of the Idea of Crusade, trans. Walter Goffart (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), p. 293.

[13] Otho de Lagery, who would later become Pope Urban II, was the bishop of Ostia around 1080 and a papal legate to Germany in 1084. H. E. J. Cowdrey, “The Mahdia Campaign of 1087,” The English Historical Review 92.362 (January 1977): 23. Other works to utilize the Carmen include Benjamin Kedar, Crusade and Mission: European Approaches toward the Muslims (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984) and David Bachrach, “Conforming with the Rhetorical Tradition of Plausibility: Clerical Representation of Battlefield Orations against Muslims, 1080-1170,” The International History Review 26.1 (March 2004): 1–19.

[14] Although the boundaries of the region called Ifrīqiyā fluctuated during the Middle Ages, it loosely comprised the area of North Africa from Béjaïa in the west to Tripoli (Libya) in the east. For the political usage of the term, see Ramzi Rouighi, The Making of a Mediterranean Emirate: Ifriqiya and Its Andalusis, 1200-1400 (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).

[15] Cowdrey, “The Mahdia Campaign of 1087,” 2–3.

[16] F. J. E. Raby, A History of Secular Latin Poetry in the Middle Ages, 2 vols., 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957), vol. 2, pp. 153–54.

[17] Cowdrey further argues that the lack of knowledge of the completion of the church of St. Sixtus in Pisa indicates that the poem was written immediately after the attack. Furthermore, the author has no knowledge of the successful First Crusade, which contained a sizeable Pisan contingent under Archbishop Daimbert. To Cowdrey, “there is every reason to see it as a pre-Crusading composition, dating from or immediately after the late summer of 1087,” in “The Mahdia Campaign of 1087,” pp. 2–3.

[18] The exact narrative of eleventh century Ifrīqīya is disputed. Essentially, two distinct historiographical schools have formed with regard to the Banū Hilāl. The first, led by French historians of the early-mid twentieth century, argues that the economy of Ifrīqīya was prosperous in the tenth and eleventh centuries. To them, the invasion of the Banū Hilāl in 1057 brought incredible devastation and destruction in the region, which would devolve into a series of ethnic conflicts between Berber families and tribes. However, the second historiographical school considers the invasions of the Banū Hilāl in a different light. This perspective, adopted by most historians from the 1970s onwards, argues that the economy of Ifrīqīya began to decline following the Fatimid relocation of their capital from Tunisia to Egypt in 969. Various groups competed with each other over control of key trade routes and the Banū Hilāl were merely one of these many groups that sought economic control. At worst, the Hilalian invasions sped up an economic process that was already well underway.

[19] H. R. Idris is one of the few historians to argue that Mahdia’s wealth and prestige actually increased following the Hilalian invasions. H. R. Idris, La Berberie orientale sous les Zirides: Xe-XIIe siècles, vol. 2 (Paris: Librairie d’Amérique et d’Orient, Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1962), pp. 449–50.

[20] Ibn Khaldūn, Kitāb al-’ibar, 8 vols. (Beirut, 2001), vol. 5. Ibn al-Athir, al-Kamil fi’l-Ta’rikh, 13 vols. (Beirut, 1966), vol. 11.

[21] Cowdrey, “The Mahdia Campaign of 1087,” 12.

[22] Ibid., 12–13.

[23] Cowdrey argues that the evidence for Genoese involvement is “more sparse than for Pisa,” Ibid., 13.

[24] Steven A. Epstein, Genoa and the Genoese, 958-1528 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), p. 24.

[25] The Carmen mentions the involvement of soldiers from Rome and Amalfi. However, these are only mentioned tangentially in stanza 12 and we know little about their involvement other than their passing mention. For a more detailed account of the political bearings and implications of the Mahdia campaign, particularly its relationship to the struggle between the Papacy and Henry IV of Germany, see Cowdrey, “The Mahdia Campaign of 1087,” 15–18. All Latin quotations of the Carmen are referenced using Cowdrey’s stanza system, which was not present in the original manuscript but included for the convenience of the modern reader.

[26] Stanza 1.

[27] The eleventh century was a time in which cults of military saints like Michael and Peter developed significant followings in Europe. These are most often discussed in the context of the Crusades, although they are relevant in this narrative as well. See Jonathan Riley-Smith, “The First Crusade and St. Peter,” in Outremer: Studies in the History of the Crusading Kingdom of Jerusalem presented to Joshua Prawer, ed. Benjamin Z. Kedar, Hans Eberhard Mayer, and R. C. Smail (Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Institute, 1982), pp. 41–63.

[28] Stanza 68.

[29] Mahdia’s suburb of Zawila received much less treatment than the main city. The author notes that “there was no house nor road in all of Zawila, which was not red and discolored with gore” following the Pisans’ attack. Apart from this, the suburb is only mentioned as a place that the Pisans occupied following their initial attack. While Mahdia’s wickedness and the faithlessness of those inside it play a central role in the Carmen‘s narrative, Zawila is an afterthought. Stanza 39.

[30] Stanzas 3 and 4.

[31] Stanza 4.

[32] Stanza 4.

[33] Stanza 6.

[34] This number is no doubt exaggerated to reflect the wickedness of Tamīm. The idea of transporting 100,000 extra captives from Ifrīqīya to the Italian peninsula in addition to the copious amount of booty seized from the Zirids is laughable. What is more important for the context of Pisan perspectives on Ifrīqīya is to emphasize the perceived extent of Tamīm’s raiding along the Mediterranean, which was so great that the whole world felt the effects of the raids and that the raids produced over one hundred thousand prisoners. Stanza 67.

[35] Stanza 14. Africa in this instance might be referring to the Roman province of Ifrīqīya, comprising parts of modern Tunis, Algeria, and Libya, or it could be referring to the continent as a whole. Without a comparative reference in the text, it is impossible to know.

[36] Cowdrey, “The Mahdia Campaign of 1087,” 25.

[37] For the purpose of considering the author’s perception of Islam, the distinction between necebat and negabat does not matter significantly. Both words cast Africa in a poor light and provide motivation to the Pisans for their expedition.

[38] The word “meschita” in this line means mosque, likely derived from the Arabic “masjid.” The name of Muhammad in medieval Latin is “Machumata.” Stanzas 32 and 52.

[39] Stanza 5.

[40] Stanza 8.

[41] Stanzas 7, 9, 67.

[42] Stanza 13.

[43] See Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress, The Berbers: The Peoples of Africa (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 1997). H. R. Idris, La Berbérie orientale sous les Zirides: Xe-XIIe siècles, 2 vols. (Paris: Librairie d’Amérique et d’Orient, Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1962).

[44] Tomaz Mastnak, Crusading Peace: Christendom, the Muslim World, and Western Political Order (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), pp. 116–17.

[45] Stanzas 32 and 35.

[46] Robert G. Hoyland, Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam (Princeton, NJ: Darwin Press, 1997). Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

[47] Alex Metcalfe, Muslims and Christians in Norman Sicily: Arabic Speakers and the End of Islam (New York: Routledge Curzon, 2003), p. 57.

[48] Stanza 32.

[49] Metcalfe, Muslims and Christians in Norman Sicily, p. 57.

[50] Peter Brown argues that “the adoption of paganus by Latin Christians as an all-embracing, pejorative term for polytheists represents an unforeseen and singularly long-lasting victory, within a religious group, or a word of Latin slang originally devoid of religious meaning,” in Peter Brown, “Pagan,” in Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, ed. G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar (New York: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 625.

[51] The word gentes poses a problem for the translator and historian. In Classical Latin, the word gens (plural, gentes) could mean people, tribe, clan, nation, or (later) Gentiles. In the Middle Ages, this word expanded to also mean parents, relatives, retainers, mercenaries, people, or inhabitants. Such a multiplicity of uses of this word makes translating and interpreting it incredibly difficult, although all of the definitions evoke the idea of a group of people in close proximity to one another or of a community. J.F. Niermeyer and C. Van de Kieft, Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon Minus, ed. J.W.J. Burgers, vol. 1 (Boston: Brill, 2002), 610.

[52] Arrabites is the adjectival form of Arabes.

[53] Stanzas 61 through 65.

[54] Stanza 61.

[55] The beginning of verse 62 has two potential meanings grammatically. The five words in question are: “Docti retro et astuti fugando respicere.” The first two words, docti retro, if taken alone, could mean something along the lines of “backward in learning.” However, if the word retro is taken with fugando, the meaning of the passage drastically changes to mean “experienced and astute with respect to fleeing backwards.” Either meaning is grammatically sound, however, because of the author’s praise of these tactics over the course of verses 61-63, I think the latter translation makes more sense.

[56] Stanza 62.

[57] Stanza 66.

[58] To my knowledge, there is no other full English translation of the Carmen. However, several verses relating to Holy War were translated in William Heywood, A History of Pisa: Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1921).

[59] I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Professors Oliver Nicholson, Kay Reyerson, and Michael Lower for helping with the translation of this text.

Please note: Notes 60-64 reference lines within the author’s translation of the Carmen.
[60] Here we can see the author’s equation of the city of Madia (Mahdia) with the Midianities, rendered in the Latin as Madianites.

[61] Pantaleo was a Byzantine noble who was active in Constantinople and Amalfi during the middle of the eleventh century. He commissioned works for the cathedral in Amalfi during the 1060s. However, his position was compromised when Amalfi surrendered to Robert Guiscard in 1073. Following this, he only reappears briefly in the Carmen and it is unclear what he did following the raid. Cowdrey argues that Pantaleo was the grandson of a Constantinople resident who was a patricius, leaving Pantaleo as a sipantus, a Latinization of the Byzantine title of hypatos (equivalent to consul). Skinner disagrees with the assertion that Pantaleo was a grandson of a Constantinople resident, arguing that the author of the Carmen might have had an “unsure understanding of Byzantine honorifics.” Patricia Skinner, Medieval Amalfi and Its Diaspora, 800-1250 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 218–19. Cowdrey, “The Mahdia Campaign of 1087,” 15–16.

[62] See the discussion of necabat and negabat in this paper.

[63] The meaning of scarsellis is unclear. I have translated it according to the Italian definition, which is a purse or bag used to transport money. Dizzionario della lingua italiana, 7 vols. (Padua: Tipografia della Minerva, 1829), vol. 6, pp. 510–11.

[64] Meaning two hundred cubits.


3 thoughts on “Perceptions of Islam in the Carmen in Victoriam Pisanorum—By Matt King”

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