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Pliny, Historia naturalis, vol. 1, V.lxv.1“5, V.lxx.2“4, V.lxxiv.1“5, V.lxxxvii.2“7,
VI.cxxxviii.1“2 and VI.cliv.3“4, for example. On Arabia and Saba and their inhabi-
tants according to medieval sources, see Rotter, Abendland und Sarazenen, pp. 79“82 and
85“6.
55
Pliny, Historia naturalis, vol. 1, V.lxxxvii.1“6, VI.cxxv.1“4 and VI.cxliv.1“7.
56
The eighth-century example is Leiden, Bibliotheek der Rijksuniversiteit, Voss.Lat.F.4
[Gneuss 838].

84
Arabs and Arabia in Latin

Arabes mitrati degunt aut intonso crine; barba abraditur praeterquam in superiore
labro; aliis et haec intonsa. mirumque dictu, ex innumeris populis pars aequa in
commerciis aut latrociniis degit. in uniuersum gentes ditissimae . . . uendentibus
quae e mari aut silvis capiunt nihilque inuicem redimentibus.57
A certain amount of information about Arabia from Pliny™s Historia natu-
ralis was retransmitted by Isidore, bishop of Seville, in his famous work on
the origins of words usually referred to as the Etymologiae. Isidore lived and
wrote at the beginning of the seventh century, and various of his writings
were read in Anglo-Saxon England from an early date; his Etymologiae were
known from at least the ¬rst years of the eighth century.58 The ˜etymologies™
consist of de¬nitions and explanations from a variety of sources, including
Pliny, Orosius, Jerome and the Bible, which Isidore catalogued in books
according to subject-matter.59 He discusses the geography and natural his-
tory of Arabia mostly in books twelve to seventeen (on animals, the ele-
ments, the regions of the earth, cities and built areas, gemstones and plants).
Isidore™s description of the region of Arabia, which draws on Pliny, Oro-
sius and the Bible, is considerably more detailed than his account of its
peoples:
Mesopotamia . . . ab oriente Tigrim habet, ab occiduo Euphraten. Incipit autem
a septentrione inter montem Taurum et Caucasum; cuius a meridie sequitur
Babylonia, deinde Chaldaea, nouissime Arabia eÉda©mon . . . Arabia appellata,
id est sacra; hoc enim signi¬care interpretatur; eo quod sit regio turifera, odores
creans: hinc eam Graeci eÉda©mon, nostri beatam nominauerunt. In cuius saltibus
et myrrha et cinnamum prouenit: ibi nascitur auis phoenix, sardonyx gemma, et
iris, molochites et paederota ibi inuenitur. Ipsa est et Saba, appellata a ¬lio Chus,
qui nuncupatus est Saba. Haec autem angusto terrae tractu ad orientem uersus ad
Persicum sinum extenditur, cuius septentrionalia Chaldaea claudit, occasum sinus
Arabicus.60
57
˜The turbaned Arabs go with uncut hair, the beard shaven except on the upper lip;
on others, this too is unshaven. Remarkably, of the innumerable population, an equal
proportion lives as merchants or robbers. They are wealthiest of all peoples . . . by selling
what they get from the sea and the woods and in turn repurchasing nothing™ (Pliny,
Historia naturalis, vol. 1, VI.clxii.1“7).
58
Lapidge, ˜An Isidorian Epitome™, pp. 185“91.
59
Also known in Anglo-Saxon England were Orosius™s comments on the geographical
location of Arabia and its peoples; his Historiae was cited by Bede and later translated
into Old English, probably during the reign of Alfred. See below, pp. 175“7.
60
˜Mesopotamia . . . has the Tigris to the east, the Euphrates to the west. It begins in
the north between the Taurus and Caucasus mountains; from which follow southwards

85
Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

Isidore wrote elsewhere that Arabia bordered Palestine, which agrees with
the geographical information given above.61 The name Saba (or Sheba)
which he mentions occurs in the Bible to denote the kingdom of South
Arabia, most famously in the passage describing the Queen of Sheba™s visit
to Solomon to hear his wisdom.62 Jerome, referring to Ps. LXXI and the
kings of Saba and Arabia, comments that the Hebrew actually reads ˜the
kings of Saba and Saba™, the ¬rst ˜Saba™ spelt with the Hebrew letter ˜sin™,
the second with ˜samech™. According to Jerome, the two letters are the same
in Latin and both names are now understood to mean Arabia.63 Isidore re-
peats Jerome™s identi¬cation of Saba with Arabia and locates the Sabaean
homeland in the Arabian mountains of the Libanus and Antilibanus, where
incense is found. He explains that the name ˜Sabaei™ indicates ˜to suppli-
cate, venerate™ because it is with Sabaean incense that God is worshipped.64
Saba appears several times in the Old Testament as an opulent region
producing spices, gold and gems, in contrast with the ¬‚ocks and herds of

Babylonia, then Chaldea, lastly Arabia Eudaemon . . . called Arabia, that is, “sacred”;
for so it is understood to mean; this is because it is a place rich in incense, giving forth
perfumes: hence the Greeks call it “eudaemon”, and we call it “blessed”. In its ravines
both myrrh and cinnamon occur; there the phoenix is born, and the gem sardonyx and
crystal?, malachite? and opal? are found. The same is also Saba, named after the son of
Chus, who is called Saba. This extends as a narrow stretch of land up to the Persian gulf
in the east, and is bordered by Chaldea in the north and the Arabian gulf in the west™
(Etym. [CPL 1186], XIV. iii. 13“14).
61
˜Pentapolis regio in con¬nio Arabiae et Palaestinae sita . . .™ (Etym. XIV. 3. 24).
62
I Kings X.1“13; Saba appears also in Ps. LXXII.10, which was widely known
through the many copies of psalters which were produced during the early medieval
period.
63
Jerome writes: ˜“Filii Regma, Saba et Dadan.” Hic Saba per “sin” litteram scribitur,
supra uero per “samech” a quo diximus appellatos Sabaeos. Interpretatur uero nunc Saba,
Arabia, nam in septuagesimo primo psalmo, ubi nos habemus, “Reges Arabum et Saba
munera offerent”: in Hebraeo scriptum est, “Reges Saba, et Saba”: primum nomen per
“sin”, secundum per “samech”™ (LQHGen., CCSL 72, 12). Elsewhere, he comments: ˜In
Psalmis ubi scriptum est: “Reges Arabum, et Saba munera offerent tibi”, in Hebraeo
habet, “reges Saba et Saba munera offerent tibi”: quorum unum Saba per “sin” litteram
scribitur, alterum per “samech”, quae nostrae litterae similis est™ (In Ezech., CCSL 75,
375).
˜Sabaei dicti ˆp¼ to“ s”besqai, quod est supplicare, et uenerare, quia diuinitatem per
64

ipsorum thura ueneramur: ipsi sunt et Arabes, qui in montibus Arabiae sunt, qui uocantur
Libanus et Antilibanus, ubi thura colliguntur™ (Etym. IX.ii.49); ˜Hoc et Libanum uocatum
a monte Arabiae, ubi Sabaei sunt. Nam mons eorum Libanus dicitur, ubi thura colliguntur™
(Etym. XVII.viii.3). Isidore also quotes from Jerome on Saba and Arabia (Etym. IX.ii.18).

86
Arabs and Arabia in Latin

Arabia.65 Jerome™s statement that Saba is now called Arabia af¬rms earlier
accounts of Arabia as a land of aromatics and of Saba as a land particularly
associated with incense.
In the second chapter of book nine, Isidore describes the Sabaeans as
Arabs. He explains that Ham™s son Chus, the ancestor of the Ethiopians, had
six sons, amongst whom was Saba, ˜a quo progeniti et appellati Sabaei . . . Hi
sunt et Arabes™.66 These Arab-Sabaeans belong, according to Isidore, among
the descendants of Ham. This gives them an entirely different ancestry from
that of the Ismaelites, who are descended from Sem.67 Isidore comments of
Sem™s descendants that they include the prophets and patriarchs, the people
of God and Christ himself, and that they inhabit the lands of the south from
the extreme east as far as the Phoenicians.68 Therefore, according to Isidore™s
summary of biblical genealogy in the ninth book of the Etymologiae, the
Sabaean Arabs are only very distantly related to the Ismaelites, Noah being
their nearest ancestor in common. It may simply be that the information
Isidore gives in the Etymologiae is incomplete. He writes only that the
Sabaeans are Arabs, and not that all Arabs are Sabaeans. He gives the reader
very little more information about the history or signi¬cance of the Arab
races or tribes, but then his purpose is to provide brief information rather
than lengthy analysis. Isidore merely mentions in a later chapter that the
Arabs pierce their ears, their women wear robes to protect their bodies
from the heat, and they make their tents from goat-hair.69 The statement

65
Ezech. XXVII.21“2: ˜Arabia et uniuersi principes Cedar ipsi negotiatores manus tuae
cum agnis et arietibus et hedis uenerunt ad te negotiatores tui; uenditores Saba et Reema
ipsi negotiatores tui cum uniuersis primis aromatibus et lapide pretioso et auro™. Saba is
described in similar terms at Isai. LX.6 (˜omnes de Saba uenient aurum et tus deferentes™)
and Ier. VI.20 (˜ut quid mihi tus de Saba adfertis et calamum suaue olentem de terra
longinqua™).
66 67
Etym., IX.ii.14. Etym., IX.ii.6.
68
˜Sem dicitur nominatus, quod nomen ex praesagio posteritatis accepit. Ex ipso enim
patriarchae et prophetae, et apostoli, et populus Dei, ex eius quoque stirpe et Christus,
cuius ab ortu solis, usque ad occasum magnum est nomen in gentibus™ (Etym. VII.vi.16);
and ˜Haec sunt gentes quae de Sem stirpe descendunt, possidentes terram meridianam
ab ortu solis usque ad Phoenices™ (Etym. IX.ii.9).
69
˜Circumcidunt Iudaei praeputia; pertundunt Arabes aures; ¬‚auent capitibus intec-
tis Getae™ (Etym. XIX.23.7); ˜Theristrum, palliolum est quo usque hodie Arabiae et
Mesopotamiae mulieres uelantur, quibus in aestu tutissimo teguntur umbraculo. De quo
in Isaia™ (Etym. XIX.25.6); ˜Cilicia Arabes nuncupant, uelamenta pilis caprarum contexta,
ex quibus sibi tentoria faciunt™ (Etym. XIX.xxvi.10).

87
Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

pertundunt Arabes aures seems to be found only in Isidore, and only in the
Etymologiae (but see Judg. viii.25 on Ismaelite earrings). The comment on
Arabian women™s clothing closely echoes one of Jerome™s and the Arabian
tents of goat-hair are possibly from Pliny.70
The above examples are representative of the kinds of ideas which were
available to Anglo-Saxon readers concerning the Arabs and Arabia from the
¬rst half of the seventh century (in the case of the Bible) or at least as early
as the eighth (Pliny, Isidore and the church fathers). Even Anglo-Saxons
whose Christian education was minimal would have encountered forms of
Arabia and Arabes in the psalter. Those who read or heard more of the Bible
might have noted that Arabia was a region outside the Holy Land and that
the Arabs were nomads. Latinate readers who studied scripture in detail
and read commentaries by earlier authorities would have developed a more
sophisticated picture. Despite many differences between the information
from the Old Testament, Pliny™s Historia naturalis and Christian scriptural
commentary, the sources agree in some basic respects. The land of Arabia
seems to have had a dual aspect. The ¬rst element was its classical and Old
Testament portrayal as an area rich in spices or incense and gold; this Arabia
was often identi¬ed more speci¬cally as Saba. The second was its presen-
tation as a region lying somewhere between Egypt and Mesopotamia and
bordering the Holy Land. The people of the Arabs, on the other hand, seem
to have been known somewhat vaguely as one of many groups inhabiting
Arabia. They were described as nomads and herders who also subsisted as
mercenaries and perhaps merchants. In a Christian context they were some-
times presented as strangers or enemies to the people of God. They seem to
have been regarded with no great favour by either the authors of the Old
Testament or later biblical commentators.
The examples cited above do not present any particular link between
Arabs and Ismaelites, and, although Jerome mentioned Arabs and Saracens
in the same context, he did not present them as the same people.71 This
lack of connection between Arabs and Saracens characterised Anglo-Saxon
literary perceptions of both peoples. However, the Arabs as known in
70
In Isaiam, CCSL 73, 57. On goat-hair tents, see Pliny, Historia naturalis, VI.cxliii.10. The
practice of spinning goat-hair is also mentioned in the Bible, at Exod. XXXV.26, for
example.
71
Other Graeco-Roman sources writing in the fourth and ¬fth centuries, by contrast, clearly
identi¬ed Saracens with Arabs as well as with Ismaelites; see the fundamental study by
Shahid, Rome and the Arabs, pp. 123“41 and 156“9.

88
Arabs and Arabia in Latin

Anglo-Saxon England did share several characteristics with the Ismaelites
and Saracens, as we shall see. One interesting similarity was that all these
peoples were presented by Christian authors as being distinct from and
inimical towards the Israelites or Christians who were the people of God.
This idea was based largely on interpretations of the Bible according to
which the Old Testament Israelites were explained as signifying the New
Testament Christian population. The representation of Arabia as an expan-
sive territory outside yet bordering the Holy Land strengthened the idea
that the inhabitants of Arabia, including the Arabs, were neighbours of,
but also other than, the people of God. This idea was yet stronger regarding
the Ismaelites because they were presented in opposition to the descen-
dants of Isaac, Ismael™s younger brother. Among Isaac™s descendants were
numbered the House of David, Christ and (according to the allegory ¬rst
put forward by Paul in his letter to the Galatians) all Christians. Distinct
from the Arabs, the Ismaelites ful¬lled a similar but much more precisely
de¬ned role as enemies or rivals of the true faith. Even the Muslim con-
quests could be explained in terms of the Old Testament description of the
Ismaelites as a hostile desert people who became a great nation by God™s
decree (Gen. XVII.20). Christian authors observed no equivalent analogy
between the Muslim conquerors and the nomadic Arabs of the Bible, and
perhaps that is why Arab seems to have remained a somewhat peripheral
concept in Anglo-Saxon perceptions of Islam and the Orient. When the
Muslim Arabs invaded Christian territories during the seventh and eighth
centuries, it was their identity as Ismaelites qui nunc Sarraceni appellantur
which explained their actions to a Christian readership.72

72
˜. . . who are now called Saracens™ (In Ezech., CCSL 75, 335).




89
5
Ismaelites and Saracens in Latin




The Arabs and Saracens shared a homeland, but occupied separate spaces
in western Christian thought. By far the larger space was devoted to the
Saracens and their relationships with Ismaelites, Israelites and other Old
Testament tribes. Jerome comments on the kings of Arabia and the tribes
of Tema, Dedan and Buz: ˜Hae gentes in solitudine sunt, uicinae et mixtae
regionibus Ismahelitarum, quos nunc Saracenos uocant et de quibus dicitur:
qui attonsi sunt in comam™.1 While he groups the kings of Arabia together
with the Saracens, Jerome does not indicate their relationship beyond the
fact that they inhabit the same region. However, he does make it plain that
the Ismaelites lived in Arabia and were, by his lifetime, known as Saracens.
His comment elsewhere on ˜Arabas et Agarenos, quos nunc Sarracenos uo-
cant™ likewise does not state categorically that the Arabs and Hagarenes
are identical.2 Other references in Jerome™s works suggest that the reader is
to understand ˜Arabs, and also Hagarenes, the latter now called Saracens™.
It seems that Jerome thought of ˜Ismaelite™, ˜Hagarene™ and ˜Saracen™ as
different names for the same people (who were not necessarily also Arabs).
This is con¬rmed by a line in his continuation of the chronicle by Eusebius:
˜Abraham ex ancilla Agar generat Ismael, a quo Ismaelitarum genus, qui
postea Agareni, et ad postremum Saraceni dicti™.3

1
˜These peoples are in the desert, neighbouring and mixed with the territories of the
Ismaelites, whom they now call Saracens and of whom it is said: who are shaven-headed™
(In Hier., CCSL 74, 244).
2
Jerome, Epistulae, CSEL 56, 170.
3
Jerome, Interpretatio chronicae Eusebii Pamphili, PL 27, 122. The writings of Eusebius on the
Arabs were an important source for Jerome and other later commentators; see Shahid, Rome
and the Arabs, pp. 95“112. Rotter discusses early medieval perceptions of the relationship


90
Ismaelites and Saracens in Latin

This relatively simple point could be elaborated as part of a sophisticated
exegetical exposition. In a long passage of commentary on the phrase onus
in Arabia from Isai. XXI.13, Jerome writes:
Quaerenti mihi et diu cum deliberatione tractanti quae esset Arabia, ad quam
propheticus sermo dirigitur, utrum Moabitae an Ammonitae, et Idumaei cunc-
taeque aliae regiones, quae nunc Arabia nuncupantur, occasionem tribuit in hac
eadem uisione quod sequitur: ˜Auferetur omnis gloria Cedar, et reliquiae numeri
sagittariorum fortium de ¬liis Cedar imminuentur™. Ismaelitas debere intellegi.
Liber Geneseos docet ex Ismaele Cedar et Agarenos, qui peruerso nomine Saracenos
uocantur, esse genitos.4

In the context of Isaiah™s subsequent vision of Kedar, Jerome concludes
that Arabia should be understood as the Ismaelites. Again, it is clear that
he considered the Ismaelites (and Saracens) to be inhabitants of Arabia or
nearby regions, but that as inhabitants of Arabia they were not necessarily
to be identi¬ed with the Old Testament Arabs. Jerome purports to base
his interpretation here on the book of Genesis, which, he says, teaches
that Kedar and the Hagarenes, known as Saracens, are descended from
Ismael.5 However, his source does not state quite what he claims. Kedar is
indeed listed among the sons of Ismael at Gen. XXV.14 but no Hagarenes
appear in Genesis except by implication as possible descendants of Hagar
(of whom only her son, Ismael, is mentioned). Saracens are not mentioned
in any book of the Bible. Jerome™s comment is reminiscent of the example
cited in the previous chapter in which he described the Arabs as robbers
on the basis of a New Testament parable which did not refer to the Arabs

between Ismaelites, Hagarenes and Saracens along with statements by Isidore and Bede
(Abendland und Sarazenen, pp. 73“7).
4
˜Having enquired of myself and for a long time examined with deliberation what might
be the Arabia to which the prophet refers “ whether the territory of the Moabites or of
the Ammonites and Edomites and all the other regions which are now called Arabia “
he presented an explanation in this same vision which follows: “All the glory of Kedar
shall fail, and the residue of the number of archers, the mighty men of the children of
Kedar, shall be diminished” [Isai. xxi.16“17]. It should be understood as the Ismaelites.
The book of Genesis teaches that Kedar and the Hagarenes, who are wrongly referred to
as Saracens, were born of Ismael™ (In Isaiam, CCSL 73, 207“8).
5
Jerome twice identi¬es the Hagarenes as Ismaelites: In Ezech., CCSL 75, 335, and Inter-
pretatio chronicae Eusebii Pamphili, PL 27, 122. In both cases he also adds that they are
Saracens.


91
Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

at all. In the present case, too, Jerome is, to a certain extent, fabricating
scripture.
The Hagarenes and Ismaelites appear throughout the Old Testament “
often, like the Arabs, in a pastoral role. I Par. XXVII.30“1 describes an
Ismaelite as King David™s camelherd and a Hagarene as a shepherd. As
Rotter comments, these two examples do not constitute any erschreckenden
Bilder.6 However, the majority of references to Ismaelites and Hagarenes
are unfriendly. It was a group of Ismaelites, also called Midianites, who
bought the unfortunate Joseph from his brothers and sold him into slavery
in Egypt.7 The Ismaelites were again linked with the Midianites as enemies
of Israel in the story of their defeat by Gideon.8 Exegetical accounts of the
Saracens associated them with these peoples and usually referred to the
same few biblical passages: Gen. XVI.12 on Ismael and his descendants;
Ps. LXXXII.6“8 on peoples hostile towards Israel; Ps. CXIX.5 on the peace-
hating inhabitants of Kedar and, occasionally, Amos V.26 on Israel and her
worship of idols in the desert. Since the Ismaelites and the Hagarenes appear
in the Old Testament but the Saracens do not, one is inclined to ask on what
basis Jerome attributed the name Saraceni to these two peoples while also
stating that the designation was incorrect (peruerso nomine Saracenos uocantur).
A clue may be found in a reference to the Saracens by Cassian (c. 365“c.
433), a monk and spiritual writer and a direct contemporary of Jerome.9
Like Jerome, Cassian lived for some years in Bethlehem.10 He visited Egypt
and then travelled to Constantinople and Rome before settling eventually
in Marseilles, where he produced his best-known work, the Conlationes, a
collection of reconstructed dialogues with Egyptian abbots. In the sixth of
these dialogues, he writes:
6 7
Rotter, Abendland und Sarazenen, p. 252. Gen. XXXVI.25“36 and XXXIX.1.
8
The enemies are described as Midianites and Amalekites in the sixth chapter of Judges
but a later reference states that they wear golden earrings because they are Ismaelites
(Judg. VIII.25).
9
At least three manuscripts containing part or all of the Conlationes have survived from
Anglo-Saxon England, for example: Cambridge, St John™s College 101 (D.26), ff. 1“14
[Gneuss 152], bk xii only; Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton 23 (4115) [Gneuss 627]; and
Salisbury, Cathedral Library, 10 [Gneuss 700], which is partial, but includes bk vi. These
manuscripts cover a period between the second half of the tenth century and the end of
the eleventh. However, books of Cassian™s Conlationes were known in England from the
end of the seventh century, as witnessed by the fact that they were drawn on by Aldhelm
(Lapidge, ˜Beowulf, Aldhelm, the Liber Monstrorum and Wessex™, p. 280).
10
Quasten, Patrology, p. 512; see also pp. 513“23 on Cassian™s life and works.

92
Ismaelites and Saracens in Latin

In Palaestinae partibus . . . solitudo uastissima est usque Arabiam ac mare mor-
tuum, quo ingressa de¬ciunt ¬‚uenta Iordanis, et cineres Sodomorum amplissima
extensione porrecta; in hac summae uitae ac sanctitatis monachi diuitissime con-
morantes repente sunt a discurrentibus Sarracenorum latrunculis interempti.11
Cassian describes the desert in which the Saracens wander as lying near
but not necessarily within Arabia. Later in the same passage, he mentions
the local population in such a way as to suggest also that the Saracen
desert-dwellers are distinct from the Arab town-dwellers, which re¬‚ects
the distinction between Arabes and Saraceni already noted above.12 Cassian
also presents the Saracens as a group of violent bandits without referring to
the Ismaelites or any other Old Testament tribe.13 The passage succinctly
outlines the place of the Saraceni as a nomadic people of the Syrian desert
and northern Arabia who could be presented in contrast with the settled
Arab population.

the origins of the saracens
The genuine etymology of the word ˜Saracen™ remains obscure. It may have
arisen as a Nabataean Arabic appellation for nomadic peoples living in the
East, and be derived from an Arabic root meaning ˜east™, or ˜marauder™;
possibly it derived from a tribal name, or was adopted from a place-name.
What is clear is that some time around the second century AD (four centuries
before the lifetime of Muhammad), Latin writers began to adopt the term
Saraceni from the Greek in order to refer to the nomads of northern Arabia.
A term for ˜tent-dwellers™ already existed in the word Scenitae, but it did not
refer exclusively to inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula. The term Arabes,
likewise, was not speci¬c to nomads, but referred also to settled Roman
citizens and Christian Arabs. It may be, therefore, that Saraceni started life
as a useful term which inhabitants of the Roman Empire used to describe

11
˜In Palestine . . . there is a vast desert as far as Arabia and the Dead Sea, where the in¬‚owing
streams of the Jordan fail, and the ashes of Sodom are scattered over a wide area; in which
some monks, richly living the highest and most holy life, were suddenly slain by the
swift-roving Saracen brigands™ (Cassian, Conlationes [CPL 512], CSEL 13, 153).
12
The reference comes in a passage discussing the dead monks: ˜quorum corpora licet scire-
mus tam a ponti¬cibus regionis illius quam ab uniuersa plebe Arabum tanta ueneratione
praerepta et inter reliquias martyrum condita, ut innumeri populi e duobus oppidis
concurrentes grauissimum sibi certamen indixerint™ (Cassian, Conlationes, CSEL 13, 153).
13
Jerome represented them in a very similar way in his Vita Malchi. See below, pp. 109“14.

93
Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

the combination of nomadism and Arab ethnicity.14 The true etymology of
the name was no better understood in the medieval West than it is today.
However, another explanation of its origins already existed by the time the
idea of the Saracens was introduced to literate Anglo-Saxons. The creation
and dissemination by Christian patristic authors of their own etymology
for the word ˜Saracen™ was perhaps the most signi¬cant development in the
history of western literary perceptions of the Arabs.
The etymology, which was devised some time after the word ˜Saracen™
itself had come into existence, was based around the Old Testament story
of Abraham and his wife Sarah.15 Sarah, unable to conceive, had Abraham
impregnate her slavewoman Hagar in order to get a son. Hagar duly gave
birth to Ismael, who was circumcised along with Abraham as part of the
¬rst covenant of the Chosen People with God. Later, by God™s intervention,
Sarah herself conceived and bore Isaac. Ismael was then cast out into the
desert at Sarah™s behest along with his mother Hagar and lived there as an
archer, inimical towards all.16 His twelve sons inherited the lands across
the north of Arabia. Meanwhile, Isaac, Ismael™s younger brother, fathered
Esau (Edom) and Jacob. Again, the older brother was passed over in favour
of the younger, who became Israel. Isaac and Jacob were thus the ancestors
of the Israelites, the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets, and eventually
the House of David and Christ himself.17
Jerome, perhaps following Eusebius or another early Christian source,
postulated Saraceni as a formation from Sara along the lines of Ismaelitae
from Ismael, Madianitae from Madian and likewise Agareni from Agar. In
other words, a Saracen was one who claimed descent from Sarah. In fact,
there is no evidence that Arabs ever referred to themselves as Saracens.18
Historically, the Ismaelites may have formed an Arab confederation includ-
ing such tribes as the Midianites and Amalekites. A number of Arabs of
the fourth century believed themselves to be descended from Ismael, as

14
On the genuine etymology of Saraceni, see Shahid, Rome and the Arabs, pp. 126“37.
Gradually, the term became less speci¬c. By the fourth century, Jerome was using
Saraceni to refer not only to northern Arabian nomads but to town-dwellers in the Sinai
peninsula. Subsequent western writers were to apply the name Saraceni to Muslim Arabs,
Muslims in general and eventually even to non-Muslim peoples perceived as enemies of
Christendom.
15 16
Gen. XVI. Gen. XXI.1“21.
17 18
EI2 VIII, 27.
See Gen. XXXV.10“12 and Matth. I.1“16.



94
Ismaelites and Saracens in Latin

witnessed by contemporaneous historians.19 It is possible that some Arabs
and early Muslims referred to themselves as descendants of Hagar.20 The
term Saraceni, however, was unique to Christian writers and was widely
promoted through the works of Jerome. Biblical exegetes seem simply to
have assumed that the northern Arabs were descendants of Hagar™s son Is-
mael and knew themselves to be congenitally inferior to Isaac™s descendants
because their ancestor was a slave and, furthermore, not the mother of the
Chosen People. Consequently, the logic goes, Ismaelites began to call them-
selves Saracens in a rather feeble attempt to make it appear that they were
descended from Abraham™s free wife Sarah and not from her handmaid.21
Jerome™s most explicit expression of this is: ˜Metaforikwv ergo per
¯
Madianaeos, Ismaelitas et Agarenos, qui nunc Sarraceni appellantur, assu-
mentes sibi falso nomen Sarae quo scilicet de ingenua et domina uideantur
esse generati, Scriptura signi¬cat™.22 Ismaelites, Hagarenes and Saracens
were thus clearly de¬ned as the same people, and as a people who proved
themselves to be untrustworthy and inferior by attempting to deceive the
world concerning their genealogy. As though the Ismaelites unsuccessfully
imitated the Chosen People in their homeland as well as their ancestry, they
were described as living next to (but never in) the Holy Land. Ismael him-
self, according to Gen. XXI.21, inhabited the desert of Paran in the Sinai
peninsula, while the tribes descended from his sons inherited a large strip of
land across northern Arabia, from Havilah (just north of the Arabian Gulf)

19
On the Nabataeans and Ismaelites as Arabs, see Shahid, Byzantium and the Arabs in the
Fifth Century, pp. 177 and 343“4; on Ismaelism among fourth-century Arabs as witnessed
by Sozomen, Theodoret and other historical writers of the time, ibid., pp. 167“78, 382“3;
and s.v. ˜Isma« il™ in EI2 .
20
See Crone and Cook, Hagarism, pp. 3“9, and Rotter, Abendland und Sarazenen, p. 70,
n. 10.
21
This etymology may originate in the works of Eusebius, but its wide dissemination was
due to its explication in the works of Jerome; as Shahid comments: ˜It was this image
carried by the term Saracen [that is, of Arab nomads as Ismaelites] that found a new ¬eld
for its vogue, probably through the prestige of St. Jerome in Latin Christendom, even
before the Arab appeared in North Africa and the Iberian peninsula in the seventh and
eighth centuries™ (Rome and the Arabs, p. 159).
22
˜Metaphorically therefore, by Midianites, scripture means the Ismaelites and Hagarenes,
who are now called Saracens, evidently assuming falsely for themselves the name of Sarah
because they wish to appear to be descended from a freewoman and mistress of the
household™ (In Ezech., CCSL 75, 335).



95
Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

as far as Shur (in the north of the Sinai peninsula). Drawing on Josephus™
Antiquitates, Jerome explained this arrangement in more detail:
Duodecim ¬lii nascuntur Ismahelo, e quibus primogenitus fuit Nabaioth, a quo
omnis regio ab Euphrate usque ad mare rubrum Nabathena usque hodie dicitur,
quae pars Arabiae est. Nam et familiae eorum oppidaque et pagi ac minuta castella
et tribus eorum appellatione celebrantur quoque: ab uno ex his Cedar in deserto et
Duma alia regio et Theman ad austrum et Cedema ad orientem plaga dicitur.23
It is easy to see how marauding Arab tribes acquired the moniker Ismaelitae.
Arab nomads were already referred to using the term Saraceni. They wan-
dered the deserts of the Ismaelite homeland, displaying characteristically
Ismaelite aggression. Etymology seemed to prove beyond doubt the iden-
tity of the Saracens as the disreputable Ismaelites and Hagarenes. In fact,
etymology proved no such thing. Saraceni, according to Jerome and later
authors, derived from Sara, not Agar or Ismael. But why should the Arabs
not be entitled to trace their ancestry back to Sarah? The answer was that
the Christian appropriation of the Old Testament also required the ap-
propriation of Sarah and her offspring, since these were the people chosen
by God. From the earliest days of Christianity, its exegetes had set out
to demonstrate that Christians, not Jews, were the true (spiritual) descen-
dants of Sarah.24 Jerome was not about to admit the possibility of any other
kind of claim on Sarah by Saraceni, except (it seems) a patently false claim
which re¬‚ected badly upon the nomadic desert tribes who never actually
made it.
Jerome™s comments on the Saracens were widely read and copied and
also retransmitted to the medieval West through works such as Isidore™s
Etymologiae. However, the tenuous link which the translator had made be-
tween Saracens and Arabia was not to be expanded upon. Isidore followed
23
˜Twelve sons were born to Ismael, of whom the ¬rst-born was Nabaioth; the whole region
from the Euphrates up to the Red Sea is still called Nabataea after him, and is a part of
Arabia. And indeed their families, towns and districts, and small forti¬cations, and their
tribes are known in this way. Cedar in the desert, and Duma, another area, and Tema,
to the south, and Cedema, towards the east coast, are each named after one of them™
( Jerome, LQHGen., CCSL 72, 31). Jerome notes essentially the same information more
brie¬‚y elsewhere: ˜Et Nabaioth unus est ¬liorum Ismael, ex quorum nominibus solitudo
appellatur, quae frugum inops, pecorum plena est™ (In Isaiam, CCSL 73A, 697).
24
The importance of this point perhaps originated with the fact that Abraham™s family
arrangements prompted the longest allegorical analysis in the New Testament: see Galat.
IV.21“31.

96
Ismaelites and Saracens in Latin

Jerome in, for example, describing Cedar as an Ismaelite and a Saracen, but
did not also de¬ne the name as a region or tribe of Arabia.25 He described
the dwelling-place of the Nabataeans, descendants of Ismael, as extending
from the Euphrates as far as the Red Sea and echoed a faint connection
between Nabataeans and Saracens which he had found in the Historiae by
Paulus Orosius.26 On the Saracen link with the Ismaelites, he is more def-
inite. Isidore clearly identi¬ed the Saracens as Hagarenes and descendants
of Ismael and followed Jerome in etymologising the name Saraceni as the
product of a false genealogical claim by the Saracens themselves.27 Isidore
uses the phrase peruerso nomine Saraceni uocantur, which is taken directly from
Jerome, and his Hi peramplam habitant solitudinem is very close to Jerome™s Hi
per totam habitant solitudinem.28 Although Isidore was original in entertain-
ing the possibility that Saraceni derives from a word for Syria, he himself
undermined the credibility of this etymology because, he wrote, it is of
gentile origin and (elsewhere) the gentiles are not to be trusted.29 In the
end Isidore returned to Jerome™s authoritative statement that the Saracens
only coined their new name because they wanted people to think they were
descended from Sarah.30
Compared with Jerome™s exegetical accounts, this information in the
Etymologiae is very brief and gives no clue as to the spiritual signi¬cance of
Ismael or the Ismaelites. This is appropriate for a reference book. Western
25
˜Saraceni . . . Ipsi sunt et Ismaelitae . . . Ipsi Cedar a ¬lio Ismaelis . . . Ipsi Agareni ab
Agar™ (Etym. IX.ii.57).
26
˜Nabaioth ¬lius Ismael, a quo Nabathaei, qui ab Euphrate in mare Rubrum habitant™
(Etym. IX.2.7) and, on Nabataean and Saracen territory, Etym. XIV.3.17; cf. Orosius,
Historiae [CPL 571], I.ii.24.
27
˜Ismael ¬lius Abraham, a quo Ismaelitae, qui nunc corrupto nomine Saraceni, quasi a
Sarra, et Agareni ab Agar . . .™ (Etym. IX.ii.6) and ˜Saraceni dicti, uel quia ex Sarra genitos
se praedicent, uel sicut gentiles aiunt, quod ex origine Syrorum sint, quasi Syriginae. Hi
peramplam habitant solitudinem. Ipsi sunt et Ismaelitae, ut liber Geneseos docet, quod
sint ex Ismaele. Ipsi Cedar a ¬lio Ismaelis. Ipsi Agareni ab Agar™ (Etym. IX.ii.57).
28
Jerome writes: ˜Liber Geneseos docet ex Ismaele Cedar et Agarenos, qui peruerso
nomine Saracenos uocantur, esse genitos. Hi per totam habitant solitudinem™ (In Isaiam,
CCSL 73, 207“8).
29
Etym. IX.ii.57 and VIII.x.12; noted by Rotter, Abendland und Sarazenen, pp. 68“9. The
name of the Syrians (Syri), on the other hand, Isidore derives from Surim . . . qui fuit nepos
Abraham ex Cethura, noting that modern speakers call the people Syros rather than Assyros
which was their older name; Etym. IX.ii.50.
30
Thus: ˜ut diximus, peruerso nomine Saraceni uocantur, quia ex Sarra se genitos gloriantur™
(Etym. IX.ii.57).

97
Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

commentary elaborated a more detailed role for the Ismaelites according
to which they functioned as enemies of the people of God. In this respect
they shared certain characteristics with the Jews as presented in western
exegesis, an aspect of their identity which Jerome did not elaborate upon
but which appears in the works of other biblical commentators. Ambrose,
for example, discussing the Ismaelites who bought Joseph and sold him
into Egypt, wrote that Ismael signi¬ed the Jews.31 He further described
the Ismaelites as a people hating God, odio habentes deum suum.32 Ambrose
explained that Ismael represented the Old Testament and servitude and
was to be contrasted with Isaac, who represented freedom and Christ.
In this, he followed the allegory devised by St Paul in his letter to the
Galatians (Galat. IV.21“31). In the context of other biblical interpreta-
tions, this potentially complicated Ismael™s role. Allegorically, Ambrose
wrote, Ismael represented the Jews. According to other authors, includ-
ing Jerome, Ismael™s historical descendants were the Ismaelites or Saracens,
who were not identi¬ed with the Jews. This somewhat confusing distinc-
tion between Ismael™s allegorical and his historical signi¬cance was clari¬ed
a little later by the great father of the western church, Augustine, bishop of
Hippo.
Augustine, like Ambrose, most frequently mentioned Ismael alongside
Isaac, presenting the pair as an allegory of the Old and New Testaments.
Both testaments, Augustine explained, came from God, just as both Ismael
and Isaac were sons of Abraham, but the younger son (and testament) was
favoured over the older. Augustine emphasised that Ismael™s mother Hagar
was a slave and that Hagar and Ismael were cast out by Abraham™s wife Sarah
in favour of her own son, Isaac. By expounding the story of Abraham, Hagar
and Sarah in this way, Augustine conveyed the need for Christians to reject
the claims of the Old Testament in favour of those of the New.33 The solution
to the problem of the literal and allegorical meanings of Ismael, Augustine
suggested, depended upon what sort of interpretation was required. As he
commented in the context of a discussion on Isaac and Ismael:
31
Ambrose, De Abraham [CPL 127], CSEL 32.1, 523, and Epistolae [CPL 160], CSEL 82.2,
160.
32
Ambrose, De Ioseph [CPL 131], CSEL 32.2, 81.
33
See, for example, Augustine, Quaestiones in Heptateuchum [CPL 270], CCSL 33, 19; Tractatus
in euangelium Ioannis [CPL 278], CCSL 36, 116 and 117“18; Enarrationes in psalmos, CCSL
40, 1784; De ciuitate Dei [CPL 313], CCSL 48, 454“6; and Epistulae, CSEL 34.2, 450 and
57, 225“8.

98
Ismaelites and Saracens in Latin

[H]aec certe doctrina apostolica atque catholica satis euidenter indicat nobis secun-
dum originem carnis ad Sarram Iudaeos, id est Israhelitas, ad Agar uero Ismahelitas
pertinere; secundum autem mysterium spiritus ad Sarram Christianos, ad Agar
Iudaeos.34

Augustine goes on to explain that the same principle applies to Esau and
Jacob. According to the ¬‚esh, Esau™s descendants are the Edomites, and
Jacob™s the Jews; according to the spirit, however, to Esau belong the Jews
and to Jacob the Christians. Thus, concludes Augustine, the statement by
St Paul is ful¬lled that the elder shall serve the younger, since the Christian
population arose more recently than the Jewish (Rom. IX.6“13). This en-
capsulates a crucial point of Christian doctrine. Jewish identity was seen
to involve racial descent (secundum originem carnis) from Abraham through
Isaac and Jacob, God™s chosen. Christianity de¬ned itself as a spiritual, not
racial category and by means of a spiritual interpretation of the stories of
Isaac and Jacob could distinguish itself from Judaism and simultaneously
lay claim to the same favoured status in the eyes of God. Such analysis sep-
arated the signi¬cance of Ismael from that of the Ismaelites to some extent.
Augustine was careful to distinguish between the meaning of Ismael and
Isaac themselves and that of their descendants. Where Ismael appeared in
a context which required that he represent the Old Testament, his peo-
ple should be interpreted as Jews, rather than Ismaelites. Similarly, the
Ismaelites in early Christian exegesis cannot be assumed always to em-
brace every quality of Ismael; his signi¬cance as representative of the Old
Testament does not necessarily always extend to the tribe which bears his
name.35
Such subtle distinctions did not always obtain. The identi¬cation of
Saracens as Ismaelites frequently involved an observed correspondence be-
tween Ismael™s traits as described in the book of Genesis and those of the
late fourth-century Arabs whom Jerome called Saracens. Genesis described
Ismael as the ancestor of a nation, circumcised, and an inhabitant of empty

34
˜Surely, this apostolic and catholic teaching quite evidently shows us that, according to
¬‚eshly origins, the Jews, that is the Israelites, belong to Sarah, and, truly, the Ismaelites
belong to Hagar; but, according to the mystery of the spirit, to Sarah belong the Christians
and to Hagar the Jews™ (Augustine, Epistulae, CSEL 57, 227).
35
Despite such distinctions, after the late twelfth century Jews and Muslims (the latter
still known as Saraceni) could be categorised together in canon law (Kedar, ˜De Iudeis et
Sarracenis™).

99
Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

places.36 Jerome similarly writes of the peoples on the Palestinian border:
˜usque hodie populi circumciduntur, et praecipue Aegyptii, et Idumaei,
Ammonitae, et Moabitae, et omnis regio Sarracenorum, quae habitant in
solitudine™.37 In another example, Jerome cites Gen. XVI.12 in his identi-
¬cation of Saracens as descendants of Ismael:
˜[Ismael] erit rusticus homo: manus eius super omnes, et manus omnium super
eum: et contra faciem omnium fratrum suorum habitabit™ . . . Signi¬cat autem
semen eius habitaturum in heremo, id est, Sarracenos uagos, incertisque sedibus,
qui uniuersas gentes, quibus desertum ex latere iungitur incursant, et inpugnantur
ab omnibus.38

Here, while the elements in heremo and inpugnantur ab omnibus follow the
biblical account of Ismael, Jerome also stresses Saracen nomadism, which
he regularly invoked using terms such as uagantes and incertis sedibus.39 The
phrase incertis sedibus is particularly resonant. Jerome employs it elsewhere to
characterise the habitat of hateful or condemned people. He describes Tyre,

36
Gen. XVI.10, XVII.20, XXI.13 and XXI.18 (a great nation); Gen. XVII.25 (circumci-
sion); and Gen. XXI.20 (the desert).
37
˜. . . to the present day the people are circumcised, and especially the Egyptians, Edomites,
Ammonites and Moabites, and all the Saracen region, who live in the desert™ (In Hier.,
CCSL 74, 101). On Ismaelite circumcision see also Jerome, In epistulas Paulinas, PL 26,
394.
38
˜ “This will be a rude man: his hand over all, and the hand of all over him: and he will
live in the sight [lit. ˜against the face™] of all his brothers.” . . . It means then that his seed
is to live in the desert, that is, the wandering Saracens of no ¬xed abode, who attack all
the peoples who live next to the desert, and are fought by everyone™ ( Jerome, LQHGen.,
CCSL 72, 20“1). It should be noted that Jerome here refers to an Old Latin translation
of the Bible. The Vulgate has: ˜Hic erit ferus homo: manus eius contra omnes, et manus
omnium contra eum™. For other examples of Jerome™s citation of Gen. XVI.12 (on Ismael)
in descriptions of the Saracens, see In Isaiam, CCSL 73, 208 and Epistulae, CSEL 56, 170.
39
For example: ˜[uia] per quam Saraceni incertis sedibus huc atque illuc semper uagantur™
and ˜magis noctibus promouemus, quam diebus . . . propter insidias late uagantium
Saracenorum™ ( Jerome, Vita Malchi, p. 54); ˜ex Ismaele Cedar et Agarenos, qui peruerso
nomine Saracenos . . . de quibus puto et poetam dicere: Lateque uagantes Barcaei™ (In
Isaiam, CCSL 73, 207“8); ˜uastissima solitudo, plena ferocium barbarorum . . . quorum
facit Poeta eloquentissimus mentionem: “Lateque uagantes Barcaei” ™ ( Jerome, Epistu-
lae, CSEL 56, 170). In the last case, though Jerome does not name the Saracens, it
seems clear from his previous aside in the commentary on Isaiah that he had them in
mind.



100
Ismaelites and Saracens in Latin

cursed in the book of Isaiah, as: ˜uagus atque in orbe peregrinus et incertar-
ium sedium, semper in angustia, iugiter in maerore™.40 Of the Edomites,
enemies of Israel, Jerome comments: ˜non enim habent fundamenta nec
domus, sed tabernacula, sedes semper incertas™.41 A little later in the same
commentary he adds: ˜Non sint stabiles, sed semper incerti: ut sedem non
habeant, et semper uoluantur instabiles . . . ita et haeretici non stant in sen-
tentia sua, sed semper dogmata mutant™.42 Another example draws upon
the biblical account of the exile of Cain. According to Gen. IV.15, Cain
went out into the land of Nod, a name which Jerome glosses ˜instabilis
et ¬‚uctuans ac sedis incertae™.43 The life of Cain exhibits a parallel with
that of the Arabs in that they are both characterised in western exegesis as
dwellers in the desert and in darkness.44 As will become clear below, this
was also true of the Saracens. It would appear that to have no ¬xed abode
was not an acceptable characteristic; to describe the nomadic Saracens as
incertis sedibus put them beyond the pale as outcasts or even enemies of good
society.

40
˜. . . a fugitive and wanderer in the world and of un¬xed abode, always in dif¬cult straits,
perpetually in lamentation™ (In Isaiam, CCSL 73, 220).
41
˜. . . for they have neither foundation nor roof, but tents, abodes forever shifting™ ( Jerome,
Tractatus in psalmos [CPL 592], CCSL 78, 386).
42
˜They are not steadfast, but always insecure: as they have no dwelling-place, and always
revolve unstably . . . likewise also the heretics do not hold to their opinion, but forever
alter the teachings™ ( Jerome, Tractatus in psalmos, CCSL 78, 388).
43
˜. . . unstable and wavering and of un¬xed abode™ (Jerome, LQHGen., CCSL 72, 7) Jerome
noted further that Cain did not, as some thought, live in the land of Nod, but that
the word explained the judgement of God in that ˜huc atque illuc uagus et profugus
oberrauit™. Cf. his description of the Saracens in the Vita Malchi (p. 42): ˜incertis semper
sedibus, huc atque illuc uagantur™.
44
˜The chief characteristics of Cain™s place of exile were that it was a desert place, a waste,
solitary, and dark™ (Williams, Cain and Beowulf, pp. 26“9); see below on the association
of Kedar, son of Ismael, with darkness. Cain and the Ismaelites exhibit thematic sim-
ilarities also shared by hateful types such as Grendel in Beowulf, ed. Wrenn: ˜se þe in
þystrum bad™ (l. 87b: ˜he who remained in shadows™); ˜m¦re mearcstapa, se þe moras
heold / fen ond f¦sten™ (ll. 103“104a: ˜well-known prowler in the marches, he who
held the wastes, marsh and fastness™); ˜sinnihte heold / mistige moras™ (ll. 161b“162a:
˜in perpetual night he held the misty wastelands™, with pun on sin also meaning ˜sin™);
˜feond mancynnes / atol angengea™ (ll. 164b“165a: ˜enemy of mankind, terrible soli-
tary wanderer™), all of which recall characteristics of Cain and Ismael. See also below,
pp. 160“61.



101
Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

The desert in which the Saracens wander, referred to variously as eremus,
uastitas or solitudo, is another common motif. Among the parts of Arabia in-
habited by the descendants of Ismael, Jerome described Kedar particularly
frequently as a region in deserto. Plains and waste places were already associ-
ated with the word for ˜Arabia™ in the Hebrew at Jer. III.2 and XXV.23 and
throughout Jerome™s commentaries as described above. Kedar appears as an
area, often a waste, belonging to or characterised by the Saracens. There are
several examples of this in Jerome™s commentaries, including one reference
to Kedar as an uninhabitable region of or beyond ˜Saracen Arabia™ (˜Cedar,
quae quondam inhabitabilis fuit regio trans Arabiam Saracenorum™).45
Jerome also writes: ˜Cedar . . . regio Sarracenorum est, qui in Scriptura
uocantur Ismaelitae™ and ˜Cedar . . . regio est solitudinis et Ismaelitarum,
quos nunc Sarracenos uocant™.46 It would appear that Kedar, son of Ismael,
gave his name to a desert area in Arabia which was subsequently inhabited by
Saracens. They are identi¬able as Ismaelites both by etymology and this asso-
ciation with Kedar. It is worth noting that Jerome here included words such
as quondam, nunc and hodie to indicate a difference between ancient scriptural
nomenclature and the fourth-century term Saraceni. Such distinctions were
rare.
It seems appropriate that Kedar should be linked with Arabia, given the
meanings that Jerome assigns the two words. Arabia, as already discussed
in the previous chapter, very often signi¬es ˜evening™, or ˜west™ in the works
of Jerome. Cedar is de¬ned as ˜shadows™ or ˜shadowy™ (or, alternatively,
˜lamentation™).47 Occasionally, Jerome elaborates further:

Arabia in lingua nostra uesperam sonat, quae noctis et tenebrarum principium
est, omnisque qui habet initium peccatorum, uersatur in uespera . . . Cedar . . .
interpretatur tenebrae.48

45
˜Kedar, which was once an uninhabitable region across Saracen Arabia™ (In Isaiam, CCSL
73A, 484).
46
˜Kedar . . . is a region of the Saracens, who are called Ismaelites in scripture™ (In Isaiam,
CCSL 73A, 697); ˜Kedar . . . is a deserted region of the Ismaelites, whom they now call
Saracens™ (In Hier., CCSL 74, 16).
47
In Isaiam, CCSL 73A, 484 and 697; In Ezech., CCSL 75, 375. The meaning moeror is only
found as a gloss in LHNom. (CCSL 72, 63, 119).
48
˜ “Arabia” in our language means “evening”, which is the beginning of night and shadows,
and all that has a beginning in sins, is performed in the evening . . . “Kedar” . . . means
“shadows” ™ (In Isaiam, CCSL 73, 296).



102
Ismaelites and Saracens in Latin

Iudices quoque eius quasi lupi Arabiae, occidentes uespere, et nil relinquentes
in mane: non aspicientes ad ortum solis, sed morantes semper in tenebris.49
Hoc signi¬cat . . . quia Cedar interpretatur tenebrae . . . ut qui ante erant in tene-
bris, et nunc credunt in Dominum Salvatorem, de uertice montium clamitent.50
The imagery in the above passages contrasts the enlightenment of true
faith with the dark of sin and godlessness, the latter represented by Arabia
and Kedar. Jerome extends this imagery in his dense commentary on
Isai. XXI.14“17. After de¬ning Arabia as ˜evening™ and the beginning of
night and sin, Jerome addresses the faithful: ˜qui consummati estis atque
perfecti, et habetis in uobis lumen scientiae Scripturarum, fugientibus de
Arabia, et de saltu, occurrite cum aqua et panibus™.51 The darkness of Arabia
is contrasted with the light of scriptural knowledge. The enlightened are
to bring loaves and water to those ¬‚eeing Arabia and its ˜gladios haereti-
corum, doctrinam gentilium, blasphemias Iudaeorum™. In the remainder
of the passage, Jerome repeats these images and adds that Cedar signi¬es
˜shadows™. Then he explains that Kedar™s glory will be taken away and that
all its archers, a multiplicity of doctrines which were wounding those in the
wood of Arabia, will be brought to nothing. After this the fugitives will be
free to partake of the aqua and panibus. Arabia is presented in opposition to
members of the true faith, who succour the fugitives from darkness with
symbols of baptism and sacrament.
Other commentators on the Bible also discussed Kedar and in some cases
drew on Jerome™s de¬nition of the word as tenebrae. They also identi¬ed
Kedar with the Saracens by means of the Ismaelite connection. Cassiodorus,
for example, explains:
Cedar hebraeum nomen est quod nostra lingua interpretatur tenebrae. Hoc ad
saeculi huius pertinet amatores, qui tenebrosis actibus inuoluti, illa magis diligunt

49
˜And their judges like wolves of Arabia, falling at evening and releasing nothing at
morning: not looking towards the rising of the sun, but remaining forever in shadows™
(Jerome, In prophetas minores, CCSL 76, 696).
50
˜This signi¬es . . . that “Kedar” means “shadows” . . . as those who before lived in shadows,
and who now believe in the Lord Saviour, should shout from the mountaintops . . .™ (In
Isaiam, CCSL 73A, 484).
51
˜. . . because you are complete and perfect, and have in you the light of the knowledge
of scripture, run with bread and water to those ¬‚eeing Arabia and the forest™ (In Isaiam,
CCSL 73, 295“7).



103
Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

unde perire noscuntur. Sed ut uerbi huius breuiter noscamus originem, Cedar
Ismael ¬lius fuit, qui genti suae nomen dedit, cuius ¬nes usque ad Medos Persasque
prolati sunt: hi nunc Sarraceni appellantur. Quo uocabulo competenter signi¬cat
peccatores, inter quos se adhuc habitare suspirat.52
It is most likely that Cassiodorus adopted his allegorical explanation of
Cedar as a Hebrew word from the works of Jerome whether directly or
through an intermediate source.53 His brief historical note on the Saracens
may well also be derived from Jerome™s writings, perhaps in combination
with information from the book of Genesis. The source of the statement
that the Saracen territory extended as far as the Medes and the Persians is
less obvious. Perhaps it derived from the information in the book of Genesis
that the twelve sons of Ismael inhabited the area from Havilah (just north
of the Arabian Gulf) as far as Shur (in the north of the Sinai peninsula).54
Cassiodorus does not state explicitly that the Saracens are to be thought
of as either the literal community of sinners bewailed by the psalmist or
the allegorical ˜those who love this world™. Nevertheless, they appear in
an unfavourable light by being closely associated with both and contrasted
with the psalmist, who represents a lone Christian voice compelled to reside
among the godless.

i d o l at r y a n d t h e s a r a c e n c u lt o f l u c i f e r
The representation of the Saracens as a people hostile towards God conforms
with the status of the Ismaelites as spiritual enemies of the Israelites. The
Ismaelites and Hagarenes appear in scripture and commentary as associates
of a number of inimical and idolatrous Arabian tribes. As noted above,
Jerome wrote in his commentary on the book of Ezekiel that by Midianites,
scripture referred metaphorically to Ismaelites, Hagarenes and Saracens. The

52
˜ “Kedar” is a Hebrew name, which in our language means “shadows”. This pertains to
those who love this world, who, wrapped with shadowy actions, greatly cherish those
things by which they know they will perish. But so that we may quickly know the
origin of this word, “Kedar” was a son of Ismael who gave his name to the people whose
borders extend as far as the Medes and the Persians: they are now called Saracens. In
which designation it suitably means “sinners”, amongst whom [the psalmist] sighs still
to be staying™ (Cassiodorus, Expositio psalmorum, CCSL 98, 1143. He refers to Ps. CXIX).
53
Cedar . . . interpretatur tenebrae (In Isaiam, CCSL 73, 296) and Cedar interpretatur tenebrae
(In Isaiam, CCSL 73A, 484).
54
Gen. XXV.18; that is, from Egypt to Mesopotamia, near the lands of the Medes.

104
Ismaelites and Saracens in Latin

Old Testament itself described the Midianites as Ismaelites in the story of
Joseph™s sale to the Egyptians and the defeat by Gideon of the enemies of
Israel.55 In Ps. LXXXII.6“8 the Arabian tribes of the Edomites, Moabites
and Ammonites are listed along with the Hagarenes and the Ismaelites
as religious enemies of Israel. Edom, Moab and the sons of Ammon are
described as particular devotees of Chamos and Moloch and Israel is enjoined
to shun them for fear of being converted to their gods.56 The same peoples
are also listed in several places with Sidon, the Canaanites, or the Philistines,
all of whom were characterised as worshippers of Baal and Astaroth and also
as foes of Israel.57
Christian commentators on the Bible interpreted the Israelites as God™s
people and therefore as the allegorical representation of the Christian com-
munity. Consequently, they followed the Old Testament in associating the
enemies of the righteous with heresy, idolatry or paganism. Cassiodorus
introduced the Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites as enemies of Christ
who belonged to the time of the Antichrist. He glossed the name Ismaelitae
55
Gen. XXXVII.25, 28 and 36; Gen. XXXIX.1 and Judg. VIII.22“5.
56
I Kings XI.1“2, for example, describes the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites and Sido-
nians as among the nations Israel should avoid because of their idolatry, and Solomon,
in¬‚uenced by his wives from these nations, later turns to false gods (I Kings XI.5“7). Moab
is especially associated with Chamos, and the sons of Ammon with Milchom or Moloch
(I Kings XI.7, 33; II Kings XXIII.13). Judg. X.6 relates how Israel fell to worshipping
Baal and Astaroth and the gods of Syria, Sidon, Moab, the sons of Ammon, and the
Philistines; Judg. X.11“13 presents a similar list of peoples, including the sons of
Ammon, who turned to foreign gods. Jerome groups Ismaelites or Saracens with the tribes
of Edom, Moab and Ammon in his commentaries: ˜Multarum ex quadam parte gentium, et
maxime quae Iudaeae Palaestinaeque con¬nes sunt, usque hodie populi circumciduntur, et
praecipue Aegyptii, et Idumaei, Ammonitae, et Moabitae, et omnis regio Sarracenorum . . .
Aegyptios, Idumaeos, Ammonitas, et Moabitas, Ismaelitas in solitudine commorantes™ (In
Hier., CCSL 74, 101). He identi¬es Ammon as a region of Arabia just south of Jerusalem
(In Ezech., CCSL 75, 289); the sons of Ammon inhabit Arabia (In prophetas minores, CCSL
76, 227); the Moabites are described as Arabs (In Isaiam, CCSL 73, 175); the territories
of Edom, Moab and the sons of Ammon are grouped under the name Arabia (In Danielem
[CPL 588], CCSL 75A, 930) and the sons of Ammon appear as Arabia and are also
described as Ismaelites (In Isaiam, CCSL 73, 207“8).
57
The Philistines place Saul™s armour in the temple of Astaroth at I Sam. XXXI.10; Judg.
II.11“13 describes how the Israelites adopt the Canaanite cults of Baal and Astaroth. These
cults are particularly associated with Sidon, for example at I Kings XI.5, 33, I Kings
XVI.31 and II Kings XXIII.13 (New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, s.v. ˜Ashtaroth™).
On the rivalry between Israelite and Canaanite religion, see Fohrer, History of Israelite
Religion, pp. 101“6.

105
Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

as oboedientes mundo, non Domino (˜obedient to the world, not to God™). He
also gave meanings for the names of other Old Testament tribes includ-
ing the Edomites (sanguinei uel terreni), Moabites (peccatorem), Ammonites
(populus turbidus) and Amalekites (populus lingens, id est fallaciter blandens).
Cassiodorus continues with a pejorative comment to the effect that these are
the multitude who will gather under the Antichrist, and that their names
are indicative of their nature.58 All the glosses convey a negative image.
Cassiodorus almost certainly derived them from a passage by Jerome on the
same psalm.59
The Arabs themselves were not invariably de¬ned in terms of these ideas.
Ru¬nus, a contemporary of Jerome, praised Christian Arabs for the pu-
rity of their faith.60 This contrasted, however, with the fact that a heresy
had been named after the peninsula.61 Jerome followed scripture in por-
traying Arabian tribes as idolaters.62 In the various examples from his
commentaries cited above, Arabia connoted the pre-Christian law of Sinai
and the covenant of Abraham, heresy, or lack of Christian enlightenment.
Twice, Jerome more explicitly associated Arabia itself with idolatry. His
commentary on Isaiah explains the prophesy that Edom and Moab and
the sons of Ammon, omnis scilicet Arabiae latitudo, would be converted,
˜et in locis idololatriae Christi ecclesiae suscitentur™ (˜and in the places of
idolatry the churches of Christ will be raised™).63 Later in the same com-
mentary, on the phrase Leuet desertum et ciuitates eius, Jerome interprets the
desert, its surrounds, Petra and Kedar as idolaters who would convert to
the praise of God.64 Ismael and the Ismaelites were guilty by association

58
˜Haec enim turba perditorum quae sub Antichristo congreganda est, allusione talium
nominum euidenter expressa est, ut merito tot malorum uocabula in illa intellegeres
plebe congesta™ (Cassiodorus, Expositio psalmorum, CCSL 98, 764).
59
Jerome, Tractatus in psalmos, CCSL 78, 386.
60
Shahid, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fourth Century, p. 279. However, Shahid notes also
that Epiphanius, writing at around the same time, associated the provincial Arabs with
heresy; see p. 278 and n. 126.
61
˜Arabici nuncupati, eo quod in Arabia exorti sunt, dicentes animam cum corpore mori,
atque in nouissimum utrumque resurgi™ (Etym. VIII.v.59).
62
˜[Rex idolum] ammonitarum, qui appellatur moloch, et in lingua nostra, regem sonat™
(In Isaiam, CCSL 73A, 648); ˜moloch idolum ammonitarum est™ (In Hier., CCSL 74, 343);
˜baal et astaroth a sidoniis, ut chamos a moabitis et moloch ab ammonitis™ (In prophetas
minores, CCSL 76, 85); ˜bahal idolum sidoniorum™ (In Hier., CCSL 74, 97 and, similarly,
226 and 340).
63 64
In Isaiam, CCSL 73, 155“6. In Isaiam, CCSL 73, 484.

106
Ismaelites and Saracens in Latin

with these tribes and also as inhabitants of Arabia who represented the old
covenant.
In his commentary on a passage by Amos which described the sojourning
of Israel in the wilderness, Jerome expands on Moloch, the name of her idol,
which he elsewhere glosses ˜king™.65 What this idol or image of a king
represents, he writes, is explained by the phrase sidus dei uestri, which is in
Hebrew Chocab:
˜Et portastis tabernaculum Moloc uestro, et imaginem idolorum uestrorum, sidus
dei uestri, quae fecistis uobis™. Ex hoc loco discimus, omnes hostias et sacri¬cia quae
in deserto obtulit Israel, non Deo obtulisse, sed Moloch regi suo, cuius portauerunt
tabernacula, et imaginem idolorum suorum statuarumque uenerati sunt. Et quae
sit ipsa imago uel idolum, sequenti sermone demonstrat: ˜Sidus dei uestri™, quod
Hebraice dicitur ˜Chocab™, id est, ˜Luciferi™, quem Sarraceni hucusque uenerantur.66

Chocab is a Latin transliteration of the Hebrew word meaning ˜star™ which
is also used to refer to the planet Venus.67 Jerome adds, interestingly, that
the cult of Venus or Lucifer is still followed in the fourth century by the
Saracens. This statement may have some historical basis. The planets, sun
and moon were all objects of adoration in the Near East in Old Testament
times.68 Of the planets the most important seems to have been Venus,
which was an attribute or image of the deities of several similar cults found
between Mesopotamia and southern Arabia.69
65
Jerome explained the meaning of Moloch as rex (˜moloch . . . in lingua nostra, regem sonat™)
as noted above (In Isaiam, CCSL 73A, 648).
66
˜ “And you have carried the tabernacle of your Moloch, and the image of your idols, the
star of your god, which you made for yourselves.” From this place we learn that all the
offerings and sacri¬ces which Israel offered in the desert were not offered to God but
to Moloch her king, whose tabernacles they carried, and worshipped the image of their
idols and statues. And what that same image or idol might be, the next phrase indicates:
“the star of your god”, which in Hebrew is called “Chocab”, that is, “Lucifer”, whom
the Saracens venerate to this day™ ( Jerome, In prophetas minores, CCSL 76, 296). Rotter
comments that Eusebius too seems to have been aware that the Saracens worshipped a
star, which he said was Venus (Abendland und Sarazenen, p. 247).
67
Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, s.v. ˜Stars™.
68
See, for example, the warnings against such worship at Deut. IV.19 and XVII.3 and the
description of Josiah™s reforms at II Kings XXIII.5. On Old Testament star-worship, see
Zatelli, ˜Astrology and the Worship of the Stars™; Delcor, ˜La culte de la “Reine du Ciel” ™;
and Olyan, ˜Some Observations™.
69
See Hempel, ˜A Catalogue of Near Eastern Venus-Deities™, p. 19. On pre-Islamic Arab
worship of Venus, see Fahd, Le panth´on de l™Arabie centrale, pp. 163“82 and 204. Classical
e

107
Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

Jerome also mentions a fourth-century Saracen cult of Lucifer in his Vita
S. Hilarionis. His source for this work was Epiphanius, who recorded that the
Arabs of Petra and Elusa celebrated a feast of Venus.70 In Jerome™s account,
the inhabitants of Elusa, in the north-east of the Sinai peninsula, gather
in templum Veneris to worship their deity, who is also referred to as Lucifer.
When they hear that St Hilarion is in town, the Saracens gather to beseech
him for a blessing, and the saint prays that they may worship God more
than they do stones.71 The passage suggests that Arab worship at the time
involved one or more stones or perhaps a stone image.72 What the reference
to Lucifer might mean exactly in this context has been discussed by Rotter.73
Jerome and, later, the medieval West could draw on both a classical and
a biblical, patristic tradition of meaning for the word. Classical tradition
re¬‚ected the literal meaning of Lucifer as ˜light-bearer™ in assigning the name
to the evening or morning star, also called Venus.74 However, after about
the third century, Christian writers also began to employ Lucifer as another
name for the Devil.75 The identi¬cation of the morning star with Satan is
hinted at in Luke X.18, which describes Satan falling like lightning from
heaven, and Isai. XIV.12“15, which details the proud ambition of Lucifer,

authors noted the eastern worship of Astarte, whom they associated with Venus: see
Attridge and Oden, Philo of Byblos, pp. 55 and 88“9.
70
Shahid, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fourth Century, pp. 291“2, 437.
71
˜[Hilarion] . . . uadens in desertum Cades ad unum de discipulis suis uisendum, cum
in¬nito agmine monachorum peruenit Elusam, eo forte die, quo anniuersaria solemnitas
omnem oppidi populum in templum Veneris congregauerat. Colunt autem illam ob
Luciferum, cuius cultui Saracenorum natio dedita est. Sed et ipsum oppidum ex magna
parte semibarbarum est propter loci situm. Igitur audito quod Sanctus Hilarion praeteriret
(multos enim Saracenorum arreptos a daemone frequenter curauerat), gregatim ei cum
uxoribus et liberis obuiam processere, submittentes colla, et uoce Syra “Barech”, id est
“benedic”, inclamantes. Quos ille blande humiliterque suscipiens, obsecrabat ut Deum
magis quam lapides colerent™ ( Jerome, Vita S. Hilarionis, PL 23, 41).
72
The anonymous pilgrim of Piacenza (c. 560“570) described the idol of the Saracens of
Sinai as a stone, said to be white marble which changed colour in response to the moon
to become as black as pitch (Rotter, Abendland und Sarazenen, pp. 10, 23“4 and 247).
73
Rotter, Abendland und Sarazenen, pp. 247“9.
74
Pliny, Historia naturalis, II.xxxvi.1“6 (cited in translation by Rotter, Abendland und
Sarazenen, p. 248).
75
Origen seems to have been the ¬rst writer to bring together the ideas of fallen star, fallen
angel, adversary and serpent in the single person of the Devil. See Forsyth, The Old Enemy,
pp. 370“2, and Russell, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition, p. 130.


108
Ismaelites and Saracens in Latin

the ˜son of the morning™ who will be brought down to hell.76 However, so
far as Jerome™s use of Lucifer is concerned, it is clear that he was referring to
the star rather than to the devil. The Hebrew root he renders Lucifer only
signi¬es ˜star™ or ˜Venus™, not ˜devil™ or ˜adversary™.
In his commentaries, Jerome indicated with words such as usque hodie
and nunc that in some cases he referred to contemporary Arabs and Saracens.
In his letters too, he describes parts of the Holy Land as areas currently
inhabited by Saracens: ˜Arabas et Agarenos, quos nunc Sarracenos uocant, in
uicinia urbis Jerusalem™.77 He describes the desert area he dwells in as being
close to the part of Syria in which the Saracens roam: ˜In ea mihi parte eremi
commoranti, quae iuxta Syriam Saracenis iungitur™ and ˜in ea ad me eremi
parte delatae sunt, quae inter Syros ac Saracenos uastum limitem ducit™.78
In another letter, Jerome makes a less direct but nevertheless unmistakable
reference to contemporary Saracens. Writing of a sudden invasion over the
borders of Egypt, Palestine, Phoenicia and Syria, he describes the attackers as
barbarians ˜de quibus tuus dicit Vergilius: lateque uagantes Barcaei et sancta
scriptura de Ismahel: contra faciem omnium fratrum suorum habitabit™.79
In these examples, Jerome described the Saracens as inhabitants of the Sinai
peninsula and northern Arabia where Ismael and his descendants lived. The
same area served as the backdrop for his Vita Malchi.

t h e v i ta m a l c h i a n d t h e s a r a c e n s
The Vita Malchi details the capture of the monk Malchus by Saracens in a
desert area on the way to Edessa. This event must have taken place some
time between the 340s and the 360s AD.80 Jerome writes that at the time,
Malchus was travelling with a group of men, women, elderly and young
76
For a brief summary of apocryphal accounts of the Devil, see the Dictionary of Deities and
Demons, s.v. ˜Devil™. In Islamic tradition, too, the planet Venus appears in connection with
angelic fall from grace, and is interpreted as having been an idol in some versions of the
story of Harut and Marut ( Jung, Fallen Angels, pp. 127“9).
77
Jerome, Epistulae, CSEL 56, 170.
78
Jerome, Epistulae, CSEL 54, 21 and 26. In his description of the life of St Paul, Jerome
describes an area inhabited by hermits in similar terms: ˜in ea eremi parte, quae iuxta
Syriam Saracenis iungitur™ (Vita S. Pauli, PL 23, 21).
79
Jerome, Epistulae, CSEL 56, 144.
80
Shahid, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fourth Century, p. 285; on pp. 283“8, he discusses the
information which the Vita Malchi contains about fourth-century Arabs and its credibility.


109
Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

on a road over which the Saracens used to wander (˜uicina est publico
itineri solitudo, per quam Sarraceni, incertis semper sedibus, huc atque
illuc uagantur™).81 Early in the narrative, Jerome vividly relates the rush of
the Saracen attack, their appearance and intentions, and the awkward haste
with which the captives are transported into the desert on camel-back:
Et ecce subito equorum camelorumque sessores Ismaelitae irruunt, crinitis uit-
tatisque capitibus, ac seminudo corpore, pallia et latas caligas trahentes: pende-
bant ex humero pharetrae; laxos arcus uibrantes, hastilia longa portabant; non
enim ad pugnandum, sed ad praedam uenerant. Rapimur, dispergimur, in diuersa
trahimur . . . cum altera muliercula in unius heri seruitutem sortitus uenio.
Ducimur, immo portamur sublimes in camelis; et per uastam eremum semper
ruinam timentes, pendemus potius quam sedemus. Carnes semicrudae, cibus; et
lac camelorum, potus erat.82
This account of the Saracen appearance is unmatched for detail anywhere else
in the writings of Jerome (or those of any other author read in Anglo-Saxon
England). Jerome™s careful description is perhaps intended to lend verisimil-
itude to Malchus™ story. The bows and quivers carried by the Saracens accord
with the biblical image of Ismael as an archer, but the Saracens are also
armed with spears and, as is mentioned later on in the narrative, in some
cases with swords.83 Another interesting aspect of the account is the de-
scription of the attackers™ clothing: they attack half-naked, wearing cloaks
and boots. Later in the Vita Malchi the narrator explains that he too learns to
wear a minimum of clothing on account of the heat of the air.84 Although
81
Jerome, Vita Malchi, p. 41.
82
˜Then suddenly the Ismaelite horsemen and camel-riders attacked, their heads of long
hair bound with ¬llets, and their bodies half-naked, wearing cloaks and wide military
boots: quivers hung from their shoulders; brandishing unstrung bows, they carried long
spears; they didn™t in fact come to ¬ght, but for booty. We are seized, scattered, dragged
apart . . . by lot I and another young woman become the slave of one master. We are led,
or rather carried high on camels; and through the waste desert, constantly fearing a fall,
we hang more than sit. Our food was half-raw meat; our drink was camels™ milk™ (Jerome,
Vita Malchi, pp. 41“2; trans. Mierow).
83
Twice, Malchus™ captor is described bearing a sword: ˜herus ille . . . euaginato me coepit
petere gladio™ and ˜dominus . . . euaginato gladio, nostrum exspectat aduentum™ ( Jerome,
Vita Malchi, pp. 45 and 56).
84
The later passage reads: ˜Hic quasi clausus carcere, mutato habitu, id est, nudus ambulare
disco. Nam aeris quoque intemperies, nihil aliud praeter pudenda uelari patiebatur™
( Jerome, Vita Malchi, p. 43).



110
Ismaelites and Saracens in Latin

the men here wear little, Jerome elsewhere cites the heat of the Middle
Eastern climate as a reason for the female inhabitants to cover up: in his
commentary on Isaiah and Liber quaestionum hebraicarum in Genesim, he
describes the theristra, which he glosses pallia, as clothing still worn by
the women in Arabia and Mesopotamia to protect their bodies from the
heat.85
The Saracen attackers in the story of Malchus are also described as having
long, bound hair, crinitis uittatisque capitibus. However, Jerome™s Vulgate
and his commentaries on Jeremiah state that the peoples who inhabit the
Saracen regions (presumably including the Saracens themselves) are short-
haired.86 A possible source for Jerome™s long-haired Saracen attackers is
Pliny™s description of the Arabs.87 Long hair might also have been part of a
battle-image for a nomadic people; ¬ghting Arabians are described in other
sources as wearing long, dishevelled locks and having their forelocks cropped
in defeat as a humiliation.88 The Saracens of the Vita Malchi resemble desert
Arabs in other respects. Malchus and his fellow-captive were fed on half-
raw meat and camel™s milk.89 This, presumably, formed at least part of the
diet of their captors too. Jerome mentions elsewhere that half-raw meat
is typically eaten by nomads.90 He also describes the kind of food eaten
by Arabs and Saracens: ˜Verbi gratia, Arabes et Saraceni, et omnis eremi
barbaria, camelorum lacte et carnibus uiuit™.91 Later in the narrative we
learn that Malchus also eats fresh cheese and milk, presumably from the
¬‚ock he is taking care of.92 Jerome further notes elsewhere on the diet of
the Arabs that they consider it vile to consume pork, at least partly because

85
In Isaiam, CCSL 73, 57 and LQHGen., CCSL 72, 30.
86
Jerome, In Hier., CCSL 74, 101: ˜Aegyptii, et Idumaei, Ammonitae, et Moabitae, et omnis
regio Sarracenorum, quae habitant in solitudine, et de quibus dicitur: “Super omnes qui
attonsi sunt in comam habitantes in deserto” ™; and In Hier., CCSL 74, 244: ˜[Dedan, et
Theman, et Buz] . . . in solitudine sunt, uicinae et mixtae regionibus Ismaelitarum, quos
nunc Saracenos vocant. Et de quibus dicitur: “qui attonsi sunt in comam”.™
87 88
Historia naturalis VI.clxii.1. Seale, The Desert Bible, pp. 27“8 and 47.
89
Jerome, Vita Malchi, p. 42.
90
Jerome, Aduersus Iouinianum, PL 23, 294“5. Jerome associates Saracen desert raiders along
the Syrian routes with the Huns quite closely elsewhere; see his Epistulae, CSEL 54, 571.
News of the Huns™ attack on Syria had reached Jerome and friends of his in the summer
of 395, and they temporarily ¬‚ed Bethlehem for the coast (Kelly, Jerome, p. 210).
91
Jerome, Aduersus Iouinianum, PL 23, 294“5.
92
˜Vescebar recenti caseo et lacte™ ( Jerome, Vita Malchi, p. 43).



111
Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

swine do not ¬‚ourish in Arabia.93 Pliny may have been his source for much
of this information.94
The Saracens in the extract cited above share several characteristics with
those described by Cassian in the sixth book of his Collationes. They live in
the desert, they seem to have no ¬xed abode, and they appear in a sudden on-
slaught. However, Cassian™s Saracens were more violent, slaughtering their
victims rather than merely enslaving them, and the desert they inhabited
would appear to be entirely barren and perhaps of some biblical signi¬cance,
since it was the site of a punishment meted out by God to the sinners of
Sodom. The desert in the story of Malchus, on the other hand, is not far
from a river and acts as a home for the Saracen ¬‚ocks and a number of wild
animals. In the end, though, the function of the Saracens is the same. They
are a sudden and violent danger which serves to emphasise the holiness or
determination of Christians who might be martyred like Cassian™s monks
or resist and escape, as Malchus was to do.
First, he becomes a slave looking after his Saracen master™s ¬‚ocks. Malchus
¬nds that this activity reminds him of various Old Testament ¬gures. He
chants psalms in the desert and feels content to have rediscovered a con-
templative life. Nonetheless, the Saracen dangers which Malchus faces are
not over. After a while, his master, seeking to reward him for the good
maintenance of his ¬‚ocks (or perhaps hoping to increase the number of his
slaves), insists that Malchus take the female captive to be his wife. Malchus
protests his Christian chastity but the Saracen forces him at swordpoint to
accept her.95 Fortunately the female prisoner too wishes to remain chaste
and the couple keep up a pretence of being ˜married™ while in fact, as the
narrator insists, they never lay a ¬nger on each other. Life is still not sat-
isfactory. Malchus™s solitary contentment in the desert proves to have been
deceptively enjoyable. He realises that he must return to the monastery
so that he can help other Christians as part of a community, and manages

93
˜Hi nefas arbitrantur porcorum uesci carnibus. Sues enim, qui glande, castaneis, radicibus
¬licum, et hordeo ali solent, aut raro apud eos, aut penitus non inueniuntur: et si inuenti
fuerint, alimenta non habent, quae supra diximus . . .™ ( Jerome, Adversus Iouinianum,
PL 23, 294“5).
94
Pliny, Historia naturalis, VIII.ccxii.8 (on swine) and VI.clxi.1 (on the nomadic diet of
milk and game). Luebeck notes that the information that nomads and troglodytes live on
half-raw meat is also found in the works of Porphyrius (Hieronymus quos nouerit scriptores,
s.v. ˜Porphyrius™).
95
Jerome, Vita Malchi, pp. 43“5.

112
Ismaelites and Saracens in Latin

to escape across the desert. He and the female captive are pursued by the
Saracens, but, providentially, a lioness kills their erstwhile master and his
servant in a cave. The two fugitives collect the Saracen camels and travel
back to civilisation, where they then sell their transport for a good price.96
Years later, Jerome reports, he as a young man met the aged Malchus and
subsequently wrote this account of his life to show that modesty cannot be
held captive even among swords, deserts and wild beasts.
In this story, the desert again appears as a signi¬cant element in the
representation of the Saracens. Jerome initially presented it as a landscape
through which the travellers moved cautiously because they knew the dan-
ger of the wandering Saracen marauders. Malchus was only travelling in
the ¬rst place because he was returning home from his life as a monk to
claim an inheritance, a material motive which he himself criticises and
comes to regret in the course of the narrative. It is this desire for worldly
goods, a lapse from his monastic intentions, that ¬rst exposes him to phys-
ical danger. There is another, more positive aspect of the desert, however,
which recalls for Malchus the Old Testament patriarchs Job and Moses,
and evokes the life of the hermit. This dual role of the desert in the Vita
Malchi is interesting: on the one hand, the landscape epitomises worldly
peril and Malchus™s exile from the communities of monastery and family
while on the other, it enables him to enter into a world of religious contem-
plation. The reference to the Old Testament patriarchs may be signi¬cant
here. Jerome suggests that with his forced journey into the Saracen wastes,
Malchus also travels into a parallel desert of the soul in which he is subject
to spiritual as well as physical dangers: he risks his chastity and sense of
belonging to the community of the monastery. His psalm-chanting as he
watches over the Saracen ¬‚ocks, like the Old Testament itself, is bene¬cial
but not enough to redeem his soul. Mulling over the words of Solomon,
Malchus sees them as an exhortation to Christian communal life and deter-
mines to break free. In this little lesson on the relationship between Old
and New Testaments, the Saracens, as part of the desert landscape, provide
essential jeopardy. They are the means by which Malchus is exposed to
sudden calamity, sexual temptation and an insidious contentment to which
he must not succumb if he is to escape from the godless Saracen desert
and the unsatisfying Old Testament desert to regain the true spirituality
of the cenobitic life. In this respect, Malchus resembles the narrator of

96
Jerome, Vita Malchi, pp. 50“9.

113
Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

Ps. LXXI who complained at his solitary stay amongst the hostile people of
Kedar.
The works of Jerome were particularly in¬‚uential in shaping medieval
conceptions of the Saracens. Indeed, he was probably the best-respected
authority after the Bible itself. In cases where the meaning of Hebrew
terminology was concerned, Jerome was the only source of information for
most western commentators. As a western-educated Christian scholar and
ascetic who inhabited southern Palestine for some years, it is not surprising
that he should have conceived a negative impression of the Arabian tribes
who raided at the edges of the desert and in AD 410“12 threatened the
existence of one of Jerome™s own religious communities in Bethlehem.97
Since he also lived and wrote in Saracen territory, he was (so far as a western
audience was concerned) in an excellent position to pronounce upon the
people themselves. His comments were taken up by subsequent writers
such as Isidore who themselves became widely cited authorities in the West.
The broad dissemination in the early medieval West of Jerome™s statements
created an audience who understood the Saracens and the Old Testament
Ismaelites as one and the same people which was connected with the region
of Arabia and inimical towards Christianity. The Ismaelites were interpreted
as the uncovenanted descendants of the hostile and desert-dwelling son of
Abraham™s concubine. This image promoted a strong religious antipathy
towards their latter-day descendants, the Saracens. Patristic literature had
an abiding in¬‚uence on medieval conceptions of the Ismaelites and Saracens.
Jerome™s words were to be cited for centuries on the violence and wandering
nature of the Saracens. Said again:
Every writer on the Orient . . . assumes some Oriental precedent, some previous
knowledge of the Orient, to which he refers and on which he relies . . . The

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