Old French and Polemical Multilingualism in Fourteenth-Century Cyprus

Uri Shachar
Ben-Gurion University

Manuscript Paris BNF Ar. 204, copied in 1336 in Famagusta,contains the earliest and most complete version of a highly important polemical treatise. Framed as a letter addressed to “a Muslim friend,” the treatise claims to survey the opinions of (unnamed) Christian authorities from the Island of Cyprus about Islam. At the outset the anonymous author puts forth a peculiar linguistic argument, that is both unique and untypically sympathetic toward the Muslim religion. The author accepts Muhammad as an authentic prophet and the Quran as a true revelation. But he claims that because the book explicitly anchors itself in Arabic, then it follows that its message was intended for those who speak Arabic, and for them alone.The specificity of the language, in other words, is not taken as a sign that the Quran is fabricated. Rather, it shows that while Islam may be a true religion, its scope is fundamentally particularistic. The Gospel, on the other hand, was translated into every idiom on earth by the apostles and their followers, proving allegedly that Christianity is the one truly universal creed.

The first part of the talk aims to establish the theological assumptions upon which this polemical argument rests regarding the connection between language and salvation. The Cypriot author, that is, entertained the notion that the Christian creed – both as a revelation and as a practice – is profoundly translatable, and that it maintained a complicated dialectic between various vernaculars and an authoritative (yet non-exclusive) idiom. In this dialectic even Islam could be seen as a “vernacular” that, by virtue of its professed monolingualism, is binding only for those who speak Arabic.

The second part of the talk will ask how the literary environment in fourteenth-century Cyprus may have given rise to this attitude toward Christian language in its profound multilingualism. I shall turn to two attempts to offer a theory of (Old) French as a language capable of salvific allegorization. Both Jean d’Arras’ romance Melusin (1382) and Philippe de Mézières’ political allegory Le Songe du vieil Pèlerin (1389), are works that display tremendous concern about the condition of their own literary efficacy. I shall argue that for different purposes, these two compositions articulated a theory of French in which language was seen to achieve its salvific quality through motion and contact. In both cases this is demonstrated by setting Cyprus as a key site in which a connection between languages, revelation, and power is staged.