. 7
( 10)


Vitellius Psalter, p. 206 (˜G™ in bibliography under ˜Old English psalter-glosses™).

Arabs, Ismaelites and Saracens in Old English

the psalms.39 Interestingly, none of the Old English psalter-glosses gives
comparable de¬nitions for Moab and Agareni, the glosses for which consist
simply of the proper names as in the lemmata.

t h e o l d e n g l i s h t r a n s l at i o n o f t h e h i s t o r i a e
a d v e r s u m pa g a n o s
What such unglossed names might have meant to an Anglo-Saxon would
depend on the level of his or her Latin. The geography and ethnology of
the Holy Land and its environs were described in various works, including
study aids to the Bible, Isidore™s Etymologiae and of course earlier accounts
of the holy places such as those cited by Adomn´ n in De locis sanctis. Isidore,
Adomn´ n and Bede also drew heavily upon the well-known and widely dif-
fused Historiae by Paulus Orosius. This work was composed in the early ¬fth
century at the suggestion of Augustine as a historical defence of Christian-
ity.40 It was known in England from an early date, as indicated by its citation
in the Leiden glossary, and continued to exert an in¬‚uence throughout the
Anglo-Saxon period.41 One indication of the importance of the Historiae
to Anglo-Saxon readers was its translation into Old English some time
during the reign of Alfred, presumably as part of the king™s educational
programme. As well as interpolating the famous description of Ohtere™s
sea-journey to the far north, the translator made a number of additions to
the text from sources including Pliny, Jerome and Bede.42 In the original

See above, pp. 105“6.
OE Orosius [Cameron B9.2], ed. Bately, p. lv. The edition of the Latin Historiae aduersum
paganos referred to below is that of Zangemeister, CSEL 5, by section and page number.
Bately (OE Orosius, pp. lv“lvi) notes that Zangemeister™s text is not exactly identical with
the version of the Historiae used by the Old English translator.
Lapidge, ˜The School of Theodore and Hadrian™, p. 151. Perhaps a dozen manuscripts
containing copies of the Latin Historiae survive from Anglo-Saxon England, of which one
dates from the second half of the eighth, one from the early tenth and the others mainly
from the eleventh century: these are: Dusseldorf, Hauptstaatsarchiv Z11/1, fragmentary,
dated s. viii [Gneuss 820]; Exeter, Cathedral Library, FM S/1, 2 and 2a, fragmentary, s. x1

[Gneuss 259.5]; and, for example, Winchester, Cathedral Library, 1, s. x/xi [Gneuss 759]
and Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 163 (2016), ff. 1“227 and 250“1, s. xi1 [Gneuss
On the dating and authorship of the Old English translation, see Bately™s analysis (OE
Orosius, pp. lxxxvi“xciii and lxxiii“lxxxvi); on manuscripts containing this text and the

Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

Historiae, the Saracens are mentioned once, as the inhabitants of a land near
Arabia. The Old English version contains a slight alteration of this account
and makes one other reference to the Saracens.
According to the Old English Orosius, the lands between the Tigris and the
Euphrates are Babylonia, Chaldea and Mesopotamia, bounded in the north
by the mountains of Taurus and the Caucasus and in the south by the Red
Sea. Along that part of the Red Sea which thrusts northwards lie Arabia and
Sabei and Eudomane.43 Here it would seem that the translator mistakenly
interpolated ˜Sabei™ from another source, since Orosius originally described
only Arabia Eudaemon as an area lying between the Persian and Arabian
gulfs.44 The Saracens do not, according to the OE Orosius, live in Arabia,
but somewhere in or near the region of Syria, which lies further west:
Of þ¦re ie Eufrate west oþ þone Wendels¦ and norþ . . . oþ þ¦t land þe mon h¦t
Armenie, and eft suþ oþ Egypte, monege þeoda sindon þ¦s landes: Comagena and
Fenitia and Damascena and Coelle and Moab and Amon and Idumei and Iudea and
Palestina and Sarracene, and þeh hit mon h¦t eal Syria.45
This differs somewhat from surviving Latin texts of the Historiae, which
read ˜maximas prouincias Commagenam Phoeniciam et Palaestinam, abs-
que Saracenis et Nabathaeis™.46 The translator seems to have misunderstood
or ignored absque, if it was present in the text before him.47 Perhaps his

relationships between them, see pp. xxiii“xxxix. On sources used by the translator apart
from the Latin original, see pp. lxi“lxxii and (generally), her ˜Geographical Information™;
on the treatment of sources, see OE Orosius, pp. xciii“c.
OE Orosius, ed. Bately, I.i (p. 10); cf. Historiae, I.ii (p. 14): ˜ad meridiem succedit Babylonia,
deinde Chaldaea, nouissime Arabia Eudaemon, quae inter sinum Persicum et Arabicum
angusto terrae tractu orientem uersus extenditur™.
OE Orosius, ed. Bately, pp. lxv“lxvi and notes on pp. 161“2; see also her ˜Geographical
Information™, p. 45.
˜West of the river Euphrates as far as the Mediterranean and north . . . as far as the
land called Armenia, and then south as far as Egypt, there are many nations of the land:
Commagenes and Phoenicians and Damascenes and Coelle and Moab and Ammon and
Edomites and Judea and Palestine and Saracens, and nevertheless it is all called Syria™
(OE Orosius, ed. Bately, I.i; p. 10); cf. Historiae, I.ii (p. 15): ˜Syria . . . habens maximas
prouincias Commagenam Phoeniciam et Palaestinam, absque Saracenis et Nabathaeis,
quorum gentes sunt XII™.
These are the words quoted by Bede when he cites a Latin version of Orosius on the lands
near Arabia (Expositio actuum apostolorum, CCSL 121, 176“7).
See OE Orosius, ed. Bately, pp. 161“2, and her comment in ˜Geographical Information™,
p. 50.

Arabs, Ismaelites and Saracens in Old English

comment indicates a common conception of Syria as a vague area some-
where between the Euphrates and Egypt which could be more properly de-
¬ned using the names listed. Later in the translation, the Saracen homeland
is located with greater precision as a land east of Egypt: ˜Seo Ægyptus þe us
near is, be norþan hire is þ¦t land Palastine, and be eastan hiere Sarracene
þ¦t land, and be westan hire Libia . . .™48 This mention of the land of the
Saracens does not occur in surviving copies of the Historiae, and the trans-
lator must have added it on his own account or from another source such
as Bede™s Nomina locorum. The addition might indicate a particular interest
in the Saracens and their homeland, or it might re¬‚ect no more than the
translator™s desire to include extra available information. Both references to
the Saracens in the OE Orosius are chie¬‚y notable for their lack of pejorative
detail. All they convey is that the Saracens lived east of Egypt in part of
Syria. This fact corresponds perfectly with earlier Latin statements that as
Ismaelites they inhabited the desert of Paran in the Sinai peninsula, but
can also be understood without knowledge of the exegetical link between
Ismaelites and Saracens.

t h e o l d e n g l i s h v e r s i o n o f t h e v i ta m a l c h i
It is rare to ¬nd any link between Saracens and Ismaelites in the vernacular.
The only explicit connection between the two in Old English occurs in
a translation of Jerome™s Vita Malchi, dating from the tenth or eleventh
century.49 The passage describing the capture of Malchus by the Saracens
is on the whole a faithful rendition of the Latin narrative, only differing in
˜The Egypt that is near us has the land of Palestine to the north, and to the east, the land
of the Saracens, and to the west, Libya.™ OE Orosius, ed. Bately, I.i (p. 11); cf. Historiae,
I.ii (p. 16), which has only: ˜Aegyptus inferior ab oriente habet Syriam Palaestinam, ab
occasu Libyam, a septentrione mare Nostrum™. Bately suggests that the translator took
the reference to the land of the Saracens from a work mentioning Arabia Scenitarum as
a region to the east of Egypt, and that the identi¬cation of Scenitae with Saraceni was
supplied by Ammianus Marcellinus (OE Orosius, pp. 162“3; ˜Geographical Information™,
p. 48). Without detracting from the plausibility of this solution, it is perhaps also possible
that the translator of the Historiae learned from the writings of Bede or Jerome that the
desert of Paran and the lands immediately south of Palestine (i.e. east of Egypt) were
inhabited by the Saracens.
The OE Malchus occupies pp. 199“207 of Assmann, ed., Angels¨ chsische Homilien, no. 5
(˜Drei Leben aus Vitas Patrum™), pp. 195“207. For the date of the translation, see Scragg,
˜The Corpus of Anonymous Lives™, p. 223, and Assmann, ed., Angels¨ chsische Homilien,
p. xxxv.

Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

some minor respects. As it is by far the longest and most detailed portrayal
of the Saracens to make its way into Old English, this passage deserves to
be cited in full:
Da w¦ron þ¦r Sarocine gesamnode, þ¦t hig s¦tnodan manna. And þa hit

geneal¦cte, þ¦t hig sceoldon feran in þone fr¦cnan weg, þa gesamnodan hio micel
wered tosamne, þ¦t hig mihton þa fr¦cnesse genesan. And in minum geferscipe
w¦ron weras and wif, and þ¦r w¦s ealdra manna and iungra and lytelra cilda, swa
þ¦r w¦re hundsiofontig. And þa þiccodon þider semninga þa Ismaheli on horsum
and on olfendum, and hig h¦fdon geþwinglode loccas and scearp fex on hiora hi-
afde and healf nacode on hiora lichaman, buton þ¦t hig w¦ron mid ¦nlypigum
riftum ymbhangene, and wide sceos hangodan on hira fotum and bogan hangodan
on hiora eaxlum, and hig b¦ron lange sceaftas and ne coman hig na to ¬ohtanne,
ac þ¦t hig woldan mid hlo°e geniman. And þa w¦ron we gegripene and tod¦lde.
And þa ymb þrage, cw¦° Malchus, and ¦fter longre yldo, þa ongan ic don hreowe
mines si°f¦tes, and ic w¦s gehloten mid anum wife in anes ceorles þeowdome. Da

w¦ron wit twegen on anum olfende þurh þ¦t rume westen and wit unc simble
ondredon, hwonne wit sceoldon feallan of þam olfende and of ahreosan, and miccle
ma wit hangodan be þam olfende, þonne wit þ¦ron s¦ton, and uncer mete w¦s
healf soden ¬‚¦sc and uncer w¦ta w¦s olfenda miolc.50

The translator clearly attempted to reproduce the detail of the original
even where he was not entirely certain of its meaning: thus crinitis uit-
tatisque capitibus (˜having long hair in bindings on their heads™) becomes
the painstaking ˜hig h¦fdon geþwinglode loccas and scearp fex on hiora
hiafde™(˜they had bound (?) locks and rough (?) hair on their heads™). The

˜There the Saracens were gathered, so that they might attack people. And when it fell
out that they [the travellers] had to travel on that terrifying road, they gathered a large
crowd together so that they might survive the terror. And in my band there were men
and women, old and young and little children such that there were seventy. And then
suddenly the Ismaelites came crowding in on horses and camels, and they had long hair
?bound and ?rough hair on their heads; and their bodies were half-naked except that
they were wrapped in individual cloaks, and wide shoes hung on their feet and bows on
their shoulders, and they carried long spears; and they hadn™t come to ¬ght but rather
because they wanted to get away with loot. And then we were seized and split up. And
then after a while, said Malchus, and after a long time, then I began to regret my journey,
and I ended up by lot, with a woman, in the service of a man. Then both of us were on a
camel [travelling] through that enormous desert and we were both terri¬ed all the time
in case we fell off and crashed down, and it was far more the case that we hung off the
camel than sat on it; and our food was half-boiled meat, and our drink was camel™s milk™
(OE Malchus, pp. 201“2).

Arabs, Ismaelites and Saracens in Old English

translator has not tried to render the Latin word-for-word but has expanded
it to produce decent vernacular prose. ˜Erant . . . uiri, feminae, senes, iu-
uenes, paruuli™, for example, is broken up to form an alliterating pair (˜w¦ron
weras and wif™), and a separate triplet (˜ealdra manna and iungra and lytelra
cilda™); this gives the list a more familiar Old English shape. The physical
fear of the camel-ride is vividly but somewhat awkwardly expressed in the
Old English: the laconic semper ruinam timentes becomes ˜wit unc simble
ondredon, hwonne wit sceoldon feallan of þam olfende and of ahreosan™.
The translator acknowledges Jerome™s authorship of the tale and intro-
duces the ¬rst-person narrative with a sentence explaining that the narrator
is Malchus. Later in the narrative and again at the end the translator states
that Jerome recorded the story from Malchus.51 The text is subsequently
interrupted every so often to insert a phrase such as cw¦° Malchus.52 This
puts the Old English at one remove from Jerome™s original but asserts his
authority as the source and emphasises that the story was originally a spo-
ken account. The translator™s alterations to the Vita Malchi seem intended
to render the story as clear as possible for a vernacular audience. This is sup-
ported by the translator™s treatment of the Saracens. Jerome had presented
them initially as nomads wandering near the public road: ˜Sarraceni incertis
sedibus huc atque illuc semper uagantur™.53 In the translation this becomes:
˜þa w¦ron þ¦r Sarocine gesamnode, þ¦t hig s¦tnodan manna™. In the con-
text of other Latin works which vili¬ed the Saracens or described Cain as
a shiftless wanderer, Jerome™s simple description of nomadism conveyed a
negative image. Perhaps mindful that his audience might not previously
have encountered the relevant writings by Jerome or Bede, the Old English
translator tells us nothing about the general nomadic nature of the Saracens
but credits them instead with a premeditated hostility which clari¬es their
role as villains from the start.
Part of the didactic signi¬cance of the Saracen attack in the Latin Vita
Malchi was that Malchus suffered slavery because he had strayed from his
life as a monk in order to collect an inheritance. This aspect of the story
is preserved in the Old English and may indeed have been one reason
for its translation.54 The Vita Malchi presented an interesting relationship
˜Saga° her on þissum bocum, hu Malchus spr¦c, se godes munuc. He cw¦° . . .™,
and ˜Hieronimus þa w¦s for° sprecende, þe þis ¦rest awrat be Malchum™ (OE Malchus,
pp. 199 and 207).
For example, ˜cw¦° Sanctus Malchus™ and ˜he cw¦°™ (OE Malchus, p. 199).
53 54
Jerome, Vita Malchi, p. 41. OE Malchus, p. 201.

Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

between the desert as home to the dangerous and corrupting Saracens and
the desert as a place in which Malchus can cultivate an eremitic holiness
which for him recalls the Old Testament ¬gures of Job and Moses.55 His
solitary contentment turns out to have been delusive and he escapes the
Saracen desert in order to return to monastic life. As well as emphasising
the need to move on from Old Testament example to a Christian lifestyle,
the Vita Malchi and OE Malchus recommend the cenobitic ideal over that
of the solitary hermit, a sentiment which would have found favour among
disseminators of Benedictinism.56 The Old English translation includes the
term Ismaheli as an alternative name for the Saracens, a collocation which
occurs nowhere else in surviving Anglo-Saxon literature. It is unclear how
readily comprehensible this name might have been. Anglo-Saxons who had
learned Psalm LXXXII with the help of an Old English gloss that rendered
Ismaelitae as synnahyrendra might recall that meaning, which would reinforce
an image of the Saracens in opposition to Christian ideals. Unlike the Old
English translation of Orosius™s Historiae, the Life of Malchus presents a
hostile picture of the Saracens as a people who lived according to h¦þenra
þ eawe.57
i n c i d e n ta l n o t i c e s
The same word, h¦°en, is used to describe the Saracens in other Old English
translations from Latin. A passage in the Old English Martyrology relates how
Liutprand, the Lombard king, rescued the relics of St Augustine of Hippo
from the Saracens:
On °one ylcan d¦g bi° Sanctus Agustinus tid þ¦s bisceopes ond þ¦s ¦þelan
leorneres; se w¦s on Africa londe, ond he þ¦r his dagas geendode, ond he w¦s
arwyr°lice bebyrged in Sardinia °¦re byrig. Ac þa hergodon þa h¦°nan Sarcinware
on þa stowe. Da for°on Leodbrond, Longbearda kyning, mid micle feo gebohte

Agustinus lichoman ond hine gel¦dde in Ticinan °a burh, ond hine þ¦r gesette
mid gelimplicre are.58

55 56
OE Malchus, p. 202. See Clayton, ˜Hermits and the Contemplative Life™, p. 167.
Jerome, Vita Malchi, pp. 43“4 (PL 23, 56).
˜On the same day [i.e. 28 August] is the feast of St Augustine, bishop and noble scholar.
He was in the land of Africa, and he ended his days there, and was interred with honour
in the city of Sardinia. But then the heathen Saracens raided the place. Then, therefore,
Liutprand, king of the Lombards, bought the body of Augustine for a large price and
took it to the city of Pavia and placed it there with all due honour™ (Das altenglische
Martyrologium, ed. Kotzor, II, 191“2).

Arabs, Ismaelites and Saracens in Old English
Bede had already described the same incident in his own Martyrologium59
and the De temporum ratione.60 Neither provides an exact parallel. Perhaps the
compiler of the Old English Martyrology consulted both works and added
h¦°nan on his own account to clarify the religious status of the Saracens who
threatened the sacred relics.61 The source which Bede himself drew upon
remains obscure.62 Some continental chronicles also contain entries dealing
with Liutprand™s journey, but, while it remains to establish the exact nature
of the relationship between these and Bede™s account, it seems that they
drew upon his notice, rather than vice versa.63
It may have been a notice in a continental chronicle that inspired an entry
on the Saracens in one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the so-called C-
text, which was copied in the mid-eleventh century, possibly at Abingdon
but possibly (as a more recent editor has argued) at Canterbury.64 For the year
AD 982 it records that the emperor Otto II travelled to Byzantine territory
and there encountered a large army of Saracens: ˜And þy ilcan geare for
Odda Romana casere to Greclande and þa gemette he þara Sarcena mycele
fyrde cuman upp of s¦, and woldon þa faran on hergo° on þ¦t cristene
folc™.65 Otto engaged with the army and eventually defeated them, though
not without trouble. The Saracens are not mentioned again, and appear in
˜In Africa depositio sancti Augustini episcopi, qui primo de ciuitate sua propter barbaros
in Sardiniam translatus est, et nuper a Liutprando rege Longobardorum Ticinum relatus,
et honori¬ce conditus est™ (Bede, Martyrologium, PL 92, 1023“4).
60 61
CCSL 123B, 535. An Old English Martyrology, ed. Herzfeld, p. xl.
Quentin notes no source earlier than Bede for the account in the Old English Martyrology
of Augustine™s second translation (Les martyrologes historiques, pp. 108“9).
For example, see the Annales Xantenses, ed. von Arx, MGH SS II, 221 (the wording
of which is very close to Bede™s). By contrast, brief notices which do not mention the
Saracens may be found in the Annales Wirziburgenses, ed. von Arx, MGH SS II, 239,
and Ex Adonis chronico, ed. von Arx, MGH SS II, 318. Contacts between England
and the insular establishment at St Gallen are well known. There were also contacts
with Wurzburg during the eighth and ninth centuries; see Sims-Williams, ˜Cuthswith,
Seventh-century Abbess of Inkberrow™, p. 16, and Cross, ˜The Apostles™, p. 18. Conti-
nental monastic chronicles from the early medieval period contain numerous references
to the Saracens which are of considerable interest but do not form part of the present
Swanton, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. xxiv; but see O™Brien O™Keeffe, ed., The Anglo-
Saxon Chronicle: MS C, pp. lxxiv“xcii and lxxxix“xcii.
O™Brien O™Keeffe, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: MS C, p. 85; trans. Swanton, The Anglo-
Saxon Chronicle, p. 124: ˜And the same year Otto, emperor of the Romans, went to the
land of the Greeks, and then met a great army of the Saracens coming up from the sea

Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

no other version of the chronicle. It is worth noting too that the parchment
is rough at the words þ ara Sarcena with some spreading of ink.66 Perhaps
this indicates a later erasure or insertion of the words. Similar information
for the year 982 appears in many chronicles kept on the Continent. A
chronicle of St Gallen, for example, gives a detailed account of a dif¬cult
battle in 982 between Otto and the Saracens in Byzantine territory.67 It
seems likely that the information in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was copied or
summarised from a continental chronicle circulating in England, or that a
visitor to a continental centre might have noted the information or heard it
reported; or, possibly, that a continental exemplar served to update or re¬ne
the account in the English chronicle. The story was perhaps of interest to
the Anglo-Saxon who included it in the entry because Otto had English

the works of Æl f r i c

Another battle between Saracens and a Christian emperor was described by
Ælfric, the famous scholar and abbot of Eynsham, who ¬‚ourished around
the turn of the tenth century. Ælfric produced a number of works which
mentioned Arabs as well as Saracens. However, he separated the peoples
in a way that epitomises the almost total distinction between them that
seems to have prevailed in Old English literature. The term ˜Arab™ appears
in Ælfric™s Grammar to illustrate the declension of two words ending in
˜-abs™: ˜In ABS geendia° twegen naman, an COMMUNIS GENERIS: hic
et haec Arabs arabisc man (of þam lande ARABIA), huius Arabis™.69 The
other word in the category is trabs (˜a beam™), which Ælfric explains in
a similar way. An interesting aspect of this otherwise rather dry gram-
matical point is his addition of the Old English adjectival ending -isc
to the Latin element arab-. Since it is not attested outside the works of

[who] wanted to make a raid on the Christian people™. The expedition, as Swanton notes,
was to part of southern Italy (p. 124).
O™Brien O™Keeffe, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: MS C, p. 85, note s.v. 982.
Annales Sangallenses maiores, ed. von Arx MGH SS I, 80.
In the same entry, the author notes the death during Otto™s expedition of another Otto,
nephew of Otto II and son of Leodulf, son of Otto I (936“73) and King Edward™s daughter
(O™Brien O™Keeffe, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: MS C, p. 85).
Ælfric, Grammar [Cameron B1.9.1], ed. Zupitza, p. 65.

Arabs, Ismaelites and Saracens in Old English

Ælfric and is accompanied in the example above by an explanation (of
þam lande ARABIA), it is possible that he coined the vernacular adjec-
tive himself. Ælfric™s Grammar is the only work surviving from Anglo-
Saxon England to de¬ne ˜Arab™ straightforwardly as ˜one from Arabia™.
Whether or not previous authors had simply taken their readers™ com-
prehension of this point for granted, Ælfric evidently felt it warranted
clari¬cation, perhaps as a result of his habitual concern to cultivate a good
understanding of Latin amongst his audience in order to bring them closer
to God.70
Ælfric employs the adjective arabisc three times again. Elsewhere in his
Grammar, it describes the Arab nation as the home of the phoenix, which
(Ælfric digresses to explain) is a bird which lives ¬ve hundred years, dies and
rises again, signifying the resurrection of the body.71 The same information
is repeated at greater length in a passage found only in certain manuscripts
of his homily for the ¬rst Sunday after Easter.72 This latter passage also
mentions the spices from which the phoenix constructs its nest, but Ælfric
neither describes them as characteristic products of Arabia, nor gives any
other details about the region or its people.73 Elsewhere in his Homilies, the
phrase arabiscre þeode describes the nationality of Herodias, daughter of an
Arab king and wife of Philippus, in Ælfric™s homily on the beheading of
John the Baptist.74
Ælfric, by contrast, neglects the Ismaelites. They appear by name in the
Old English Genesis in a section thought not to have been translated by
Ælfric and are described only as the spice-traders to whom Joseph was sold
by his brothers: ˜hi gesawon twegen Ismahelitisce wegfarende men cuman
of Galaad, and l¦ddon wyrtgemang on heora olfendon . . . on Egypta

As Ælfric himself explained in his preface; see Ælfric, Grammar, pp. 2“3.
Ælfric, Grammar, p. 70: ˜In IX PRODUCTAM on lange ix geendia° þas naman: hic Fenix
(swa hatte an fugel on arabiscre °eode)™.
Ælfric, ˜Hw¦r bi° wyrta blostman?™, p. 534: ˜Sum fugol is gehaten fenix on arabiscre
þeode ¦fre wuniende™. This passage is found appended to Ælfric™s Homily for the First
Sunday after Easter [Cameron B1.1.18].
Another reference to the phoenix and its cinnamon occurs in the Wonders of the East,
ed. and trans. Orchard, pp. 202“3, where, however, neither is presented as an Arabian
Ælfric, Decollation of John the Baptist [Cameron B1.1.34], ed. Clemoes, p. 452: ˜phili-
ppus . . . se gewifode on þ¦s cyninges dehter arethe arabiscre þeode™.

Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

land™.75 The translator refers to them as Midianites (Madianisce) in the
same passage.76 In his version of the book of Judges, Ælfric refers only to
Midianites and not also to Ismaelites or Amalekites as in the Vulgate.77
Nowhere does he identify the Ismaelites as Saracens, nor vice versa. The
Saracens instead appear independently in the works of Ælfric as a people
who, it seems, required no explanation.
Ælfric portrays the Saracens in one of his homilies as representatives of
the desert and non-Christian inheritors of the Promised Land in a role which
recalls that of the Ismaelites in the Reuel.1. He explains how the Romans
harried the land and besieged the city of Jerusalem until the inhabitants
starved, while robbers within the walls slew their own compatriots in their
hunger. The resulting corpses could not be buried, because of the weakness of
the survivors. Instead, because of their stench, they were thrown in hundreds
over the wall. The Romans eventually conquered the city, destroyed its
walls and temple, and slew the remaining inhabitants, so that the city was
afterwards rebuilt elsewhere, and the site which it had previously occupied
remained empty ever afterwards. Intriguingly, Ælfric then introduces the
Saracens into his picture:
Da l¦ddon þa Romaniscan þ¦t þ¦r to lafe w¦s þ¦s folces,

fela hund manna, ham to heora burgum.
And þ¦r naht ne belaf on þam lande þ¦s cynnes,
and is swa gefylled þ¦t, þ¦t hi fores¦don,
þ¦t hi w¦ron ben¦mode lifes and eardes.
þ¦s mancynnes gehw¦r
Is swa °eah micel d¦l
wide tosawen, and Saracenas habba°
þe hi ¦r h¦fdon.78
þone ¦þelan eard,

˜They saw two Ismaelite travellers coming from Galaad, and bringing spices on their
camels . . . to the land of Egypt™ (OE Heptateuch, ed. Crawford, p. 173). Ismael™s descendants
appear in the OE Heptateuch, ed. Crawford, p. 150. Ismael himself is described in the OE
Heptateuch and the Old English poem Genesis, as in the Old Testament of the Vulgate,
as wild and truculent, an enemy to all and opposed by all (OE Heptateuch, ed. Crawford,
p. 124; Genesis, ed. Krapp, ll. 2289“2294a).
On Ælfric™s translation in the OE Version of the Heptateuch, see Pope, Homilies of Ælfric: A
Supplementary Collection I, 143, and Clemoes, ˜The Chronology of Ælfric™s Works™, p. 218.
Ælfric, Old English Judges, pp. 406“8; cf. Judg. VII.12 and VIII.24.
˜Then the Romans led away what was left of the people, many hundred men, homewards
to their cities. And they left none of the tribe there in the land; and so what was foretold
is ful¬lled, that they would be deprived of life and land. But a great portion of the
people is widely scattered everywhere; and the Saracens possess the noble land which they

Arabs, Ismaelites and Saracens in Old English

The implication is that the Saracens, like weeds, moved in when proper
civilisation was no longer to be found. The sons of Ismael in Reuel.1 were
far more vividly aggressive, but the principle that they and the Saracens
represent the arrival of the wasteland and spiritual desolation in a previously
living and holy landscape remains the same.
Another parallel with the Reuel.1 is found at the end of Ælfric™s version of
the book of Judges.79 Here, in a brief historical addition to scripture, Ælfric
relates how the emperor Theodosius II (AD 408“50) crossed the Red Sea
in pursuit of a captured comrade and was then attacked near the Euphrates
by the king of the Persians, who had enlisted the help of a large force of
¬¦ra Perscis[c]ra cyning w¦s °am casere wi°r¦de; þa sende he his here him to and
he eac gegaderode of þam Saraceniscum swi°e micele fyrde togeanes þam casere; ac
Crist him sende to swa micelne ogan, þ¦t hi hig sylfe adrengton an hund °usend
manna on °¦re miclan ea, Eufrates gehaten, and he wolde þa fri°.80
A military link between the Saracens and the Persians was also indicated
by pseudo-Methodius in his account of the second appearance of the sons of
Ismael. When the empire of the Persians fell, the Ismaelites (¬lii Hismahel,
¬lii Agar) would rise up in their place or on their behalf against the empire
of the Romans (pro illis aduersus Romanorum imperium).81 It is interesting
that both pseudo-Methodius and Ælfric should have allied the Saracens or
Ismaelites with the Persians against the Romans, especially in conjunction
with the fact that both authors describe the Ismaelites or Saracens as the
occupiers of a desolate Jerusalem.82

once owned™ (Ælfric, Homily for Friday after the Fifth Sunday in Lent [Cameron B1.5.4],
pp. 68“9).
The text of Ælfric™s Old English Judges [Cameron B8.1.6] appears in the OE Version of the
Heptateuch, ed. Crawford, pp. 401“17. The historical ˜epilogue™ occupies pp. 414“17.
˜The king of the Persians was opposed to the caesar; then he sent his army against him,
and he also gathered together a very great force of the Saracenish [people] against the
caesar; but Christ sent him such a great terror, that a hundred thousand men drowned
themselves in the great river called the Euphrates, and then he desired peace™ (Ælfric, Old
English Judges, p. 416).
Reuel.1, p. 80; Salisbury 165, f. 15v. The second recension does not link the Ismaelites
and Persians in the same way; cf. Reuel.2, p. 11.
It is conceivable that Ælfric learned the information that the Saracens currently occupied
the site of Jerusalem from a work such as the Expositio in Matheum of Paschasius Radbertus,
who also associated Roman and Saracen activity in the city in the same passage (CCCM
56B, 1167); but it may also have been general knowledge at the time.

Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

However, the two accounts have no direct relation with each other:
Ælfric™s Persians and Saracens ¬ght together against the Romans in the
same battle, whereas in the Reuelationes the sons of Ismael emerge in op-
position to the Romans only after the Persians fall. Unlike the Ismaelite-
Persian connection and the Ismaelite occupation of Jerusalem in Reuel.1,
Ælfric™s two accounts are not part of a single narrative: the Roman siege of
Jerusalem took place centuries before the lifetime of Theodosius. Further-
more, the source of Ælfric™s description of the victory by Theodosius II is
readily identi¬able as a passage in the Historia ecclesiastica tripartita, a history
attributed to Cassiodorus.83 The possibility cannot be excluded that Ælfric
encountered material from the pseudo-Methodian tradition, but there is
no evidence that Ælfric knew any recension of the Reuelationes of pseudo-
Methodius.84 The coincidences between the attributes of the Saracens as
presented by Ælfric and those of the sons of Ismael in the Reuel.1 are inter-
esting in that they indicate common Christian perceptions of the Muslims
in East and West from the seventh and early eleventh centuries. Like the
appearance of Astaroth as the Indian idol in the story of Bartholomew, the

Historia ecclesiastica tripartita, ed. Hanslik, CSEL 71, 646“50. Ælfric condenses the original
account considerably. Elsewhere in his writings, Ælfric drew on this work and the De
rectoribus christianis by Sedulius Scottus (¬‚. 848) to describe several successful battles waged
by the Christian emperors Theodosius I and Theodosius II (se gingra) against the heathens.
Pope discusses these brie¬‚y in the context of a homily by Ælfric on kingship (Homilies of
Ælfric: A Supplementary Collection II, 727, 730 and 732); on this homily, ˜Wyrdwriteras
us secga°™ [Cameron B1.4.23] see also Braekman, ˜Wyrdwriteras™. Pope notes that the
miraculous storm which aided Theodosius I in Ælfric™s epilogue to the book of Judges
(Ælfric, Old English Judges, p. 415) is derived from an earlier account by Sedulius Scottus
(De rectoribus christianis, pp. 67“8). Ælfric™s dependence on the Historia ecclesiastica tripartita
for his account of Theodosius II and the Saracens seems to have gone unremarked. Cf.
the homily De inuentione sanctae crucis attributed to Bede (PL 94, 494“5), in which divine
intervention brings victory to Constantine against a formidable Saracen enemy.
Pope (Homilies of Ælfric: A Supplementary Collection I, p. 164) notes that Ælfric knew
Adso™s De ortu et tempore Antichristi, which, as Sackur indicated, shares certain traits with
the pseudo-Methodian tradition (Sibyllinische Texte, p. 102). As mentioned above, the
Cosmographia of Aethicus Ister was in¬‚uenced by pseudo-Methodian material and was
also known in Anglo-Saxon England. Anlezark (˜The Old Testament Patriarchs™, pp. 94“
101) discusses the possibility that pseudo-Methodian material in¬‚uenced Anglo-Saxon
royal genealogies, but concludes that a more likely source is traditional material from the
Syrian Book of the Cave of Treasures (which Anlezark states to be the ultimate source of the
Reuelationes, but see above, pp. 141“2).

Arabs, Ismaelites and Saracens in Old English

Indian idol of the sun in the story of Thomas and the india saracenorum of
the Durham Ritual, they show that Christian authors independently tended
to link the Saracens with the names of other non-Christian eastern peoples
and gods, and attributed to them qualities such as idolatry, carnage, ruin
and barrenness which were antithetical to the Christian ideal.
Ælfric evidently felt no need to explain his references to the Saracens and
their anti-Christian activity. Given his well-known concern that his writ-
ings should be understood by a lay audience, this suggests that Ælfric was
con¬dent that the name of the Saracens would be recognised by the less lit-
erate.85 References such as the india saracina of the Durham Collectar and the
sarcena of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle show that, by the end of the eleventh
century, Saracens were known in Anglo-Saxon England outside a highly
educated Latin context. Earlier works continued to exert an in¬‚uence: ex-
amples of Saracens mentioned by Orosius and Jerome were transferred into
the vernacular through the OE Orosius and Life of Malchus. However, the
method of selection of texts for translation seems to have limited the kind
of information about the Saracens which became available in Old English.
Exegetes such as Jerome and Bede had manipulated the idea of the Sara-
cens in their role as Ismaelites to help de¬ne the identity of Christians and
the still-young Christian church. Such sophisticated exercises remained a
Latinate preserve. Vernacular writings conveyed a simpler and more con-
crete image, nonetheless effective as a basic tool of Christian teaching, and
presumably deemed more accessible (and less prone to misinterpretation)
for unlearned minds. While Ælfric very probably knew of the etymology
that identi¬ed the Saracens as Ismaelites, he leaves no clue of it in his Old
English works.
Cf. Ælfric™s description in The Passion of St Thomas of an unfamiliar Roman building
constructed for the king of India: ˜swylc weorc nis gewunelic to wyrcenne on englalonde/
and forþy we ne secga° swutellice heora naman™ (p. 404). Ælfric elsewhere revised the
details of eastern settings as they appeared in his sources, presumably to suit the Anglo-
Saxon lay imagination; the desert in which his John the Baptist appears, for example,
is described as a wood (Saunders, ˜Vox Clamantis™, pp. 19“21). Cf. also the fears Ælfric
expressed in his preface to Genesis regarding the encounter of sum dysig man with the
Old Testament (Old English Preface to Genesis, p. 76) and the cautious treatment by the
Old English translator of the story of Hagar™s concubinage (the translation is discussed
in detail by Anlezark in ˜The Old Testament Patriarchs™, pp. 247“56). If the Saracens
were nis gewunelic . . . on englalonde, one imagines that Ælfric would have offered some

Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

It is true that basic elements of the earlier erudite accounts entered
Old English: the translation of Jerome™s Vita Malchi provided a connec-
tion between the Ismaelites and the Saracens (though it did not explain it
according to the etymology disseminated by Jerome) and various psalter-
glosses rendered Ismahelitarum as synnahyrendra, which, as indicated above,
also derives from the exegesis of Jerome. Without being integrated within
a larger structure of ideas about the Ismaelites, such elements would hardly
have conveyed the detailed image of the Saracens available to an ecclesiastic
such as Bede. However, they encapsulate the central notion, shared by the
patristic writings, that the Saracens were hateful aliens. They also accord
perfectly with newly arriving contemporary information about the Muslim
conquests as represented by the entry on Otto II and his victory over the
Saracens in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
The purpose of translating and glossing in Old English was presumably
to make texts available, whether through reading or listening, to a wider
audience than only the thoroughly Latinate. By the end of the Anglo-Saxon
period, this wider audience had potentially heard of all three peoples of
the Arabs, Ismaelites and Saracens, but it was the Saracens who appeared
most frequently in the vernacular and in the most varied contexts. To what
extent Anglo-Saxons also talked about the Saracens can only be guessed at.
The letters from Alcuin and Boniface indicate that the Saracens provided
a topic of conversation for Latin scholars on the Continent in the eighth
century. The fact that they wrote home suggests that this was also the case
in England, if only for some; but if Christian literacy initially brought new
conceptions of space and time only to the Latinate among the Anglo-Saxons,
these conceptions were evidently deemed important enough to articulate
in Old English too. The audiences of the Historiae by Orosius, the Historia
ecclesiastica by Bede and their Old English translations could conceive of the
Saracens as contemporary marauders on the Continent whose homeland lay
east of Egypt. Later Saracen appearances (in India in the Durham Collectar
and among the ruins of Jerusalem in Ælfric™s homily) indicate that they
were no longer necessarily con¬ned to texts directly translated from Latin
sources and also that the authors who mentioned them knew they would
be recognisable to Anglo-Saxons with little Latin education. Perhaps a
development in Christian literary sensibilities regarding the Saracens may
also be observed. Malchus became a slave to the Saracens, and Cassian™s
monks were martyred in one of their raids. Bede recorded with satisfaction

Arabs, Ismaelites and Saracens in Old English

that the Saracens received a just reward for their wickedness in Gaul. In
later years, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Reuel.1, Reuel.2 and Ælfric described
armies of Saracens defeated by Christian emperors in battle. However, the
question of just how widespread such ideas had become across the Channel
by the time Pope Urban preached the First Crusade does not lie within the
bounds of the present discussion.

Persisting theories about Saracens in
post-Conquest England

Hast thou not, close at hand, the Ishmaelite
To cut thee work out, more then thou canst do?
Cam˜ es, The Lusiads, trans. Sir R. Fanshawe, ll. 792“3

Soon after the Norman Conquest, a group of the more important English
ecclesiastical institutions began what appears to have been an organised pro-
gramme of copying patristic Latin texts from continental exemplars. During
the next few decades (the ¬rst half of the twelfth century) this programme
of copying seems to have spread outwards into smaller centres so that they,
too, developed libraries of desirable texts which remained attached to the
institution rather than to an individual (as book-collections had tended to
do in Anglo-Saxon England). The second quarter of the twelfth century
saw a dramatic increase in the number of texts being imported and copied
throughout England. Desirable texts were, primarily, exegesis and classical
writings. The four church fathers are well represented from this period,
along with many secular Latin works and some in Greek. Scienti¬c texts
were also copied, as were contemporary biblical commentaries by continen-
tal authors.1 It is safe to say that antiquated information about the Saracens
continued to be newly circulated even as Christian European writers and
readers got to grips with new texts about them “ eye-witness accounts
of the Crusades, pilgrims™ tales and the like “ and also new texts from
Space does not permit a fuller discussion of literary developments in England during the
twelfth century but see, for example, Gameson, The Manuscripts of Early Norman England,
pp. 4“20; Thomson, ˜The Norman Conquest and English Libraries™, pp. 27 and 33“9;
Rigg, A History of Anglo-Latin Literature, pp. 62“3; and, on a centre which acquired some
unusual texts early in its library career, Thomson, ˜The Library of Bury St Edmunds Abbey™,
especially pp. 624“33.

Persisting theories about Saracens in post-Conquest England

them “ scienti¬c literature and translations of religious works, including
the Qur™¯ n.2 This is not to suggest that post-Conquest readers, any more
than Anglo-Saxon readers, took whatever Jerome or Isidore or Cassian had
written on the Arabs or Saracens as an eternal verity on the topic. However,
it appears that some readers of these authors felt that there was at least a
grain of truth in the antique accounts.
Meanwhile, everyday relationships between commentator and Saracen
had altered profoundly. Jerome had encountered the nomadic Saracen tribes
as a result of his own move to the Syrian desert. Bede remained in England
while news of Saracen encroachments abroad came to him along with pep-
percorns traded from India. During the ¬rst half of the tenth century,
Ad´ mar of Chabannes, who lived in Angoulˆ me, west of Limoges, implies
e e
that Saracen speech was a comparatively familiar benchmark by which to
judge the oddity of northern African dialects.3 A list of decretals from
northern France in the twelfth century declares that no one, cleric or lay,
Even before 1130 this is apparent from the manuscript record. Paschasius Radbertus™s
commentary on Matthew, which displays a clear understanding of the name and function
of the mosque, is known to have been copied in England in partial form (Preface and Book 1)
before 1130 (Gameson, 81e). This compares with two copies of Jerome™s In Ezechielem, in
which Saracens are identi¬ed as Ismaelites (Gameson 153 and 758), four copies of In
Hieremiam, containing comments on Saracens as Ismaelites (Gameson 155, 462, 573 and
829), ¬ve copies of In Isaiam asserting that the wrongly named Saracens are Ismaelites
(Gameson 156, 156, 219, 684 and 830), ¬ve copies of LQHGen noting that Saracens are
the violent descendants of Ismael and seven copies of In prophetas minores, in which Jerome
mentions Saracen worship of Venus (Gameson 28, 140, 196, 220, 469, 470 and 720) “
not to mention (on the subject of Venus) a copy of the Vita S. Hilarionis (Gameson 919).
Similarly, Arab scholarship is represented by a single copy of Qusta ibn Luq¯ ™s De physicis
ligaturis (Gameson 349) while Isidore™s Etymologiae (repeating Jerome on the subject of
Saracens as Ismaelites) appears twenty-one times (Gameson 164e, 250e, 264, 279e, 280e,
404e, 500e, 521, 545e, 548e, 565e, 567e, 571, 652, 737, 764e, 768e, 777e, 779e, 799e
and 853). It is not that contemporary facts about Saracens were unavailable; they were at
this stage simply outnumbered by new copies of old texts.
Ad´ mar describes an incident which took place during Christian“Muslim struggles around
Narbonne: ˜Christiani . . . bello inuaserunt Agarenos, et uictoria potiti sunt, omnesque
aut morte aut captiuitate cum nauibus et multis spoliis eorum retinuerunt, et captiuos
aut uendiderunt aut seruire fecerunt, et Sancto Marciali Lemouice uiginti Mauros corpore
enormes transmiserunt dono muneris™. The abbot wisely retained only two of the enormous
Moorish captives in his service and divided the remainder among a number of pilgrims. Of
the speech of the Africans, Ad´ mar writes: ˜Loquela eorum nequaquam erat Sarracenisca,
sed more catulorum loquentes, glatire uidebantur™ (˜Their speech was not at all like Saracen;

Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

shall be caught with a pilleum Turcorum “ apparently a Turkish or Turkish-
style felt cap.4 In what surely constitutes an extreme of intimacy with the
Ismaelites, the twelfth-century historian Orderic Vitalis describes a monas-
tic household that employed as cook a Saracen who was also brother-in-law
to the prior. Presumably the ˜Saracen™ was not a Muslim. This episode is
examined in more detail below.
Despite the increased contacts between Christian and Muslim cultures,
and despite increasing mutual knowledge among representatives of the
faiths, early Latin analyses continued to inform later Latin and, eventually,
English polemic, commentaries, histories and other writings on Islam. From
the creation of the Vulgate Bible through the Islamic conquests to the
Crusades, the learned pursuit of assimilating Saracens within a hostile and
purportedly scriptural tradition survived far beyond the twelfth century.
The idea of Saracens as Ismaelites and Hagarenes continued in England and
abroad, often, ultimately, traceable to Jerome™s writings. In many later cases,
the author does explain the names Ismaelitae or Agarenae, but sometimes still
puts them into an exegetical context intended to in¬‚uence contemporary
understanding and even action. In the late twelfth century, for example,
William of Tyre (commenting from the East) reported that Pope Urban
had described the Prophet as a descendant of Hagar and had presented St
Paul™s citation of Genesis on Hagar, eice ancillam et ¬lium suum, as a literal
injunction to Christian listeners to expel the Muslims ([Sarraceni] . . . gens
impia et inmundarum) from Jerusalem.5

rather, speaking like puppies, they appeared to yap™); Ad´ mar of Chabannes, Chronicon,
CCCM 129, 171.
˜De pilleis. Item ut nullus clericus aut laicus habeat pilleum Turcorum™; Consuetudines:
Canonicorum regularium ordinis Arroasiensis constitutiones, c. 234, ll. 1“2; CCCM 20, 213.
This laconic interdiction is intriguing: did the fashionable set of northern France take to
wearing imitation Turkish headgear in the wake of the First Crusade? Visibility of religion
may have in¬‚uenced the decretal; the following entry indicates that the beards of converts
must be shaven but they may not cut their hair urbano more.
William of Tyre, Chronicon, CCCM 63, 132; see above, p. 24, n. 61, for the relevant passage.
The same de¬nition appears in the writings of Bernard of Pavia and several other canonists,
some published as late as the sixteenth century; see Kedar, ˜De Iudeis et Sarracenis™, p. 212
and n. 21. Urban is recorded elsewhere as having sermonised that the Saracens were falsely
so called, being actually Hagarenes: ˜Paucos ante annos, gens a Perside Agarena, quam
corrupte Sarracenam dicitis, sanctam ciuitatem Hierusalem, sanctamque terram inuadens,
cepit, diripuit, incendit™ (Urban, Sermones, PL 151, 580).

Persisting theories about Saracens in post-Conquest England

Post-conquest use of patristic example could vary a good deal. A few ex-
amples will suf¬ce to set the scene. During the ¬rst decades of the twelfth
century, Orderic Vitalis “ born near Shrewsbury in 1075 and educated
in England until the age of ten, subsequently a monk of Saint-Evroul in
Normandy “ began to compose his famous Historia ¦cclesiastica, a Latin
account of Norman and English history.6 In the seventh book of this
work, Orderic described an unfortunate case of food-poisoning which befell
Robert, abbot of St Eufemia in Brescia:
Nam quidam genere Sarracenus arte pistoria Brixensi cenobio seruiebat. Hic
sororem Willelmi prioris . . . in matrimonio habebat, et pro quadam latenti causa
satisque parua occultum contra abbatem odium gestabat. Unde instinctu diaboli
ferculum eius ueneno corrupit, imitatus Ismahelem patrem suum qui ferali ludo
simplicem Isaac grauare studuit.7
Orderic™s literary treatment of the Saracen is, by now, familiar to any reader
who has also read Bede or Jerome on the Saracens. He identi¬es the baker
as a son of Ismael and implies that malice and susceptibility to the devil™s
promptings are characteristic of the man™s ancestry. Orderic then cites what
sounds like a scriptural antecedent or type for the poisoning incident, but
Genesis describes only Ismael at play.8 To ¬nd a scene comparable with that
described by Orderic, we must again turn to patristic exegesis and, specif-
ically, to the works of Augustine, who commented on Gen. XXI.8“10:
˜Ludebant simul Ismael et Isaac; uidit illos Sara ludentes, et ait Abrahae:
“Eice ancillam et ¬lium eius” . . . illa lusio, illusio erat; illa lusio decep-
tionem signi¬cabat™.9 He goes on to cite St Paul™s allegorisation of Ismael
as the worldly community that persecutes Isaac, the spiritual community.
Augustine focuses on the deeper implications of play and frivolity, exem-
pli¬ed in his own signi¬cant word-play illa lusio, illusio erat. Orderic recalls
this or a similar conceit with the words ferali ludo, and the parallel is indeed
Chibnall, The Ecclesiastical History, I, 2“5 and 79.
˜It happened that a man of Saracen blood served as a baker in the Brescian monastery;
he had married a sister of Prior William . . . and for some unknown but trivial reason
nourished a grudge against the abbot. So at the instigation of the devil he put poison
in his food, imitating his father Ishmael, who in an ominous game tried to harm the
unsuspecting Isaac™ (Orderic Vitalis, Historia ¦cclesiastica, IV, 22; trans. Chibnall, p. 23).
See Chibnall™s note (The Ecclesiastical History IV, 23“4, n. 5) and Gen. XXI.8“10.
˜Ismael and Isaac were playing together; Sarah saw them playing and said to Abraham,
“Cast out the handmaid and her son” . . . that play was a ploy; that play meant per¬dy™
(Augustine, In Iohannis, CCSL 36, 117).

Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

apt: the food prepared by the Saracen baker appears wholesome but proves
deadly (the abbot dies after thirteen days). Like Jerome and Bede, Orderic
presented the Saracens of his own day according to the terms of established
exegesis. It is not possible to understand his analysis of the Saracen without
resorting to Augustine™s analysis of Ismael as the persecutor of Isaac (or a
similar text), and it is not possible to understand Augustine™s references to
the worldly and spiritual communities without resorting to Paul™s letter
to the Galatians, which in its turn draws upon the original Old Testament
story of Abraham, Hagar, Sarah and Ismael in the book of Genesis. The
event may have taken place in the twelfth century, but its representation
by Orderic rests squarely within a much older exegesis.
Orderic™s commentary on a contemporary Ismaelite Saracen seems to have
circulated only as widely as his Historia aecclesiastica and was not, for exam-
ple, translated into English before the modern period. Other works known
to English readers, in which authors attempted to integrate a variety of
statements about Arabs, Saracens and Ismaelites, did much better. During
the thirteenth century, Jacobus de Voragine (c. 1230“98) composed his fa-
mous Legenda aurea or Legenda sanctorum. This work was reproduced in great
numbers over the next few hundred years; well over a thousand manuscripts
are known to survive, it was translated into various vernaculars (including
English) and from c. 1470 it was printed widely and often throughout
Europe. The section of the Latin original that deals with the life of Pelagius
contains a long digression on the life and teachings of Muhammad, who is
introduced as a fraud: ˜Magumethus pseudo propheta et magus Agarenos
siue Ismaelitas, id est Saracenos, hoc modo decepit . . .™10 After describing
how God tells Muhammad that he has rescued the prophet from poverty and
idolatry, the author notes: ˜Vniuersa enim gens Arabum cum Magumetho
Venerem pro dea colebat et inde est quod adhuc sexta feria apud saracenos
in magna veneratione habetur, sicut apud iudeos sabbatum et apud chris-
tianos dies dominica colitur™.11 It must be assumed that a Latinate audience
would supply the necessary information that sexta feria is also dies Veneris
in order to understand the point. The passage is interesting for the way
in which it places a hard fact about Islam “ the Friday worship “ in the
Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea, ed. Maggioni, II, 1261.
˜For all the people of the Arabs along with Muhammad worshipped Venus as a goddess and
thence it is that to this day the sixth day is held in great veneration among the Saracens,
as the Sabbath is respected by the Jews and the Lord™s day by Christians™ (Jacobus de
Voragine, Legenda aurea, ed. Maggioni, II, 1263).

Persisting theories about Saracens in post-Conquest England

grip of very ancient ideas about pre-Muhammadan Saracen Venus-worship,
even though the author had already acknowledged Muslim monotheism.12
If Jacobus is drawing on Jerome directly here, it is as though he sees his
opportunity to reinstate the reassuring concept adhuc which Jerome had
expressed using hucusque so many centuries before, and which Bede had
removed when he updated Jerome in mentioning a cult of Venus to which
the Saracens had previously been addicted.
Reginald of Canterbury, who lived and wrote during the second half of
the eleventh century and the ¬rst decade of the twelfth, travelled in just
the opposite direction from Orderic Vitalis and shows a quite different
relationship with his chosen patristic source. Reginald grew up in an area
of northern France which he calls Fagia, probably Faye-la-Vineuse in north-
east Poitou, and travelled to England after the Norman Conquest, arriving
some time around or before 1092.13 In 1082 he had begun to write a long
verse-account of the life of Malchus based on the Latin story by Jerome. Some
time between 1095 and 1107, while Reginald was resident in England,
he ¬nished this huge work and sent ten copies to various high-ranking
ecclesiastical friends, some of whose responses survive along with a number
of manuscripts containing the poem itself.14 Although it enjoyed a limited
circulation, Reginald™s Vita Malchi is notable for its re-portrayal of the
Saracens as pagans in the classical style. Their ¬rst appearance ¬ts fairly well
with Jerome™s account. Malchus decides to return home from his monastery
in order to collect his inheritance, and passes through the desert on the way
(arida, terribilis, sterili salsugine vilis). In this waste lurk the Saracens, eager
for prey:
Has ita damnatas mortalibus atque negatas
Terras centeni peragrare solent Saraceni,
Causa praedandi, vastandi seu iugulandi.15
The detailed description which follows of the Saracens™ appearance, mounts
and intentions also follows Jerome and some of the earlier writer™s

˜Cum christianis autem conueniunt quia credunt unum solum deum omnipotentem om-
nium creatorem™ (Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea, ed. Maggioni, II, 1262).
Reginald of Canterbury, Vita S. Malchi, ed. Lind, pp. 9“10.
Ibid., p. 11. Lind describes surviving manuscripts on pp. 21“5.
˜So Saracens by the hundred are accustomed to traverse these lands that are lost and
unknown to mortals, for looting, despoiling and slaughter™ (ibid., p. 56, ll. 296“8). Cf.
Jerome™s words; see above, pp. 110“11.

Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

vocabularly is reproduced: Reginald has ˜Gentes crinite campis . . .
Moabite . . . Et capiti uittas graciles . . . Portant™ where Jerome portrays
˜Ismaelitae . . . crinitis uittatisque capitibus™; according to Reginald, ˜Ex
umero pharetre pendent ferrugine tetre™, while Jerome has ˜pendebant ex
humero pharetrae™, and so forth. The ¬nal picture is certainly one of a prim-
itive and violent desert people, named again as Saracens at the end of the
passage: ˜Heu Saracenorum subito ¬t praeda malorum™.16
Later, however, Reginald™s Saracens drift away somewhat from what we
might expect from a twelfth-century writer. There is nothing to identify
the bandits of this story with the later Muslim Saracens who had created
such an impression with their military and cultural successes. Reginald
appears to be writing a poem which is set ¬rmly in the past, no matter
what its contemporary signi¬cance for monastic communities, and in which
Saracens as aptly as any other ancient people may be subjected to a distinctly
classicising trend. Two of Reginald™s more whimsical interpolations (of
which there are many, of a more or less digressive nature) are the scenes
in which the desert captors pause to worship a number of gods and then
compete for prizes in sports such as horse-racing and discus-throwing. Their
deities include the god Pan, satyrs, Fortune, the moon, fauns, nymphs,
Jupiter, Juno, stars (both astra and stellae), Thetis, dryads and Silvanus.
At ¬rst reading it appears that Reginald™s enthusiasm for the antique
has almost entirely absorbed the original character of the Saracens. To an
extent this is the case; he loses the simplicity which made Jerome™s version
so much like a parable and which portrayed the Saracens as anonymous,
violent, unchaste and vengeful. But Reginald™s list of deities, as well as
allowing him to show off his classical expertise within a metrical scheme,
also re¬‚ects a tendency for Christian authors to attribute obscure forms
of idolatry to the Saracens, especially during the twelfth century. In this
respect the poem is a product of its time.
This is not to suggest, for example, that Reginald™s Vita Malchi could
provide us with a source for what Norman Daniel calls the Saracen pantheon,
but his desert-dwelling pagani do demonstrate an authorial attempt to
integrate classical stereotypes with Christian themes and concerns “ an
attempt perhaps made less ambitiously by vernacular authors with their
inclusion of Apollyon and Jupiter among Saracen deities in the chansons de
geste. The authors of the chansons used old or old-sounding godheads at least

All these quotations ibid., p. 57, ll. 313“32.

Persisting theories about Saracens in post-Conquest England

partly to add spice to their Saracens and put them clearly in the religious
wrong. Otherwise, the Muslim enemies were de¬ned according to strictly
chivalrous terms and, moreover, were indubitably a contemporary subject.
Reginald™s programme is different from Jerome™s in that Malchus™s captors
are much more antique Romans than they are Saracens. Characters are picked
out of the crowd and given names and individuality from the beginning
of the second book and, while some happen to be Saracens, there are other
Arabian types among the pagan throng. Malchus™s master is one such Saracen
but he is distinguished from others by his skill in astronomy. The virtue of
Jerome™s simple account, in which a featureless mass of Saracens extended, as
it were, one anonymous pseudopod in the form of the unchristian master over
Malchus, was to imprison an individual conscience within the consequences
of its ill actions and so lead it into contemplation and thereby some spiritual
renewal. Reginald™s Saracens are too individual (and lengthily described) to
act as a mere foil for Malchus™s journey of the soul, and too often referred
to as pagani.17 Their closest relatives may, strangely enough, be the named
polytheistic individuals who feature as villains and sometimes (converted)
heroes in the Crusade romances.
A similar process “ the diminishment of recognisably Saracen content in
a reworking of a Hieronymian text “ can be observed much later in Caxton™s
translation of Jerome™s Vitas Patrum. The English version (cited in the edi-
tion by de Worde in 1495) contains the stories of Hilarion and Malchus, but
the Saracens of Jerome™s original are conspicuous chie¬‚y by their absence.
Of the Saracen Venus-worshippers of Elusa, whom Hilarion persuaded into
monotheism, Caxton writes: ˜. . . alle the peple were assembled for to doo
sacrefyce to the Temple of Venus. In that Temple were many Paynems™ but
no more is said about their identity.18 Similarly, in the story of Malchus,
the Saracens only appear once as a rather vague collective threat to Malchus

Between ll. 402 and 454 (end of book 1 and beginning of book 2), Reginald refers to
the desert captors in four section titles: ˜Ubi Pagani Illicitis Utuntur™, ˜Ubi Pagani Suos
Laudant Deos™, ˜Ubi Pagani Sortes Iaciunt et Praedam Dividunt™ (which detail from the
original perhaps inspired Reginald™s idea of the pagan games) and ˜Ubi Pagani Ludunt
Cum Cestibus™. Later, a contestant in one of the games is referred to as a Saracen, but
others of the group are identi¬ed as belonging to different peoples. Malchus™s master is
described as a Saracen and also a magician skilled in reading the stars.
Compare Jerome describing ˜omnem oppidi populum in templum Veneris congregauerat.
Colunt autem illam ob Luciferum, cuius cultui Saracenorum natio dedita est™; he refers
to Saracens again in the next sentence (Vita S. Hilarionis, PL 23, 41).

Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

and his companion as they ¬‚ee.19 Otherwise, the desert captors are referred
to as theues when they ¬rst attack and Malchus™s master is called a lorde. No
mention at all is made of them as Ismaelites. This is all the more striking
since other Oriental details of the story, such as being carried on camelback
and subsisting on raw meat and camels™ milk, are faithfully preserved.20

a d a p tat i o n a n d s u r v i va l
The contrasts in the early twelfth century between Orderic Vitalis™s handling
of patristic material and Reginald of Canterbury™s reworking of the Vita
Malchi point towards the continual shifting of information about Saracens
as authors put it to new use. Changes to their sources naturally re¬‚ect the
individual desires of the (re-)writers who made those changes, and they
also re¬‚ect different ways in which received information about the Saracens
could develop. On the one hand, information could be synthesised: new
information was made to conform with the old and was integrated, or
old information was restated so that it could absorb new information and
become so much the more valid a statement about contemporary Saracens.
Bede achieved this in his ˜updating™ of Jerome on Saracen bellicosity; Orderic
does the same in his treatment of the Saracen baker, and something similar
can be seen in the appearance of Venus in the Legenda aurea. On the other
hand, information could dwindle away or be altered in subsequent retellings
until the Saracens no longer really constituted signi¬cant content. This is
what seems to have happened in Aethicus Ister™s garbled adaptation of
Jerome™s commentary on Amos, which came to refer to Turks and Saturn
instead of to Saracens and Venus; it may also be evident in Reginald of
Canterbury™s partial transmogri¬cation of Jerome™s Saracens into classical
pagans, and in the vanishment en masse of Saracens in Caxton™s translation
of Vitas Patrum.
Critics of Said™s model of ˜latent Orientalism™ (which he extends, roughly
speaking, from the beginnings of Greek literature to the present day) have
˜They ranne . . . more by nyghte thanne by daye. By cause they fered the Sarrasyns. And
also for to eschewe the grete hete of the daye™ (Caxton, trans., Vitas Patrum, p. liii).
˜For in comynge from Heroa for to goo in to Edysse we were robbyd of theues. And we
were bitwene thre score & foure score in a companye. Emonge whom was taken a wife
of one of my companye. And we were caryed upon two camellys unto the house of a
lorde. And in goynge thyder we ete noo thynge but rawe ¬‚esshe. And dranke milke of
camellis . . .™; Caxton, trans., Vitas Patrum, p. lii; cf. Jerome, cited above, pp. 110“11.

Persisting theories about Saracens in post-Conquest England

already noted that it does not take satisfactory account of the variety of opin-
ions and perceptions expressed and displayed by western Europeans during
different periods. As mentioned above, the de¬ciency of the Orientalism
theory is already suggested in Nabil Matar™s research on British attitudes
towards the Ottoman Empire and Islam during the Renaissance. British
perceptions of Ottoman Islam might have been characterised by hostility,
but not by smugness; Islamic empire was too powerful, too advanced and
(in some cases) too attractive to be ˜possessed™ by the West in the certainty
of their European and Christian superiority.21 Detailed analysis of the writ-
ings of a period show not only that responses towards varieties of Islam
were many and different but that it is dif¬cult, and likely misleading, to
generalise plausibly about those responses.
The fact that Latinate authors in Anglo-Saxon England had thought
the Saracens claimed Abrahamic descent might, by now, appear to be a
distinctive feature of that particular period (as indeed it was). But the fact
that Latinate writers continued to express the same idea throughout the
Crusades and the late Middle Ages and then adapted it for use into the
Renaissance and beyond argues for something less limited than a period
feature (though perhaps more precise than ˜latent Orientalism™ in terms of
demonstrable textual transmission).22 Amidst all the change, the literary
cross-currents and multifarious personal experience and the rising tide of
what we are by now able to call more or less factual representations of
Islam “ all of which are absent from the very partial discussion below “
some theories about the Saracens remained unchanged from generation to
It is not possible within the space of a chapter (and perhaps not even
within the space of another book) to explore fully the survival or re-
emergence of late antique and early medieval ideas about the Saracens after
the First Crusade. Other scholars have in any case gone over much of the

˜In light of the Muslim impact on English commerce and society, it is not surprising that
in their early modern relations with the Muslims, English writers did not express either
the authority of possessiveness or the security of domination which later gave rise to what
Edward Said has termed “Orientalism” ™ (Matar, Islam in Britain, p. 11).
Said and Matar mention European treatments of the Ismael/Hagar connection: Said,
Orientalism, p. 268 (Massignon on Islam as the religion of Ismael and therefore of an
excluded people), and Matar, Islam in Britain, p. 157 (˜bastardy™ of the Saracens due to
their descent from Hagar). Neither author locates the Islam/Ismael topos within the
longer tradition of the Saracens as Ismaelites.

Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

ground already, and it would be both tedious and unnecessary to repeat
the ¬ndings of Daniel, Kedar, Matar and indeed Said himself. Neverthe-
less, it seems worthwhile to illustrate the idea of a continuing tradition in
post-Conquest English thought by roughly tracing it through the survival
of two speci¬c theories: ¬rst, the notion that the Saracens, more properly
called Ismaelites or Hagarenes, had changed their name in order to claim
descent from Sarah; and, secondly and more brie¬‚y, the notion that the
Saracens were devoted to Venus. Both these ideas originated in exegesis of
the Old Testament, as has been illustrated in the preceding chapters, and
had been disseminated in western Europe largely as a result of the popularity
of Jerome™s commentaries and other writings.
It should be noted that similar ideas almost certainly occurred to dif-
ferent authors at different times. Even texts from the earlier centuries of
the Middle Ages resist the drawing-together of all examples of Oriental
Venus-worship, for example, partly because of continuing classical in¬‚u-
ences. It was, perhaps, the appealing solidity of concepts such as ˜Hagar™ and
˜Venus™ that helped to crystallise notions of Saracen illegitimacy or venality
repeatedly around the same ˜factual™ core.
The catalogue below is provided in order to hint at how pre-Conquest
ideas subsequently survived and developed in English writings. It is in-
tended only to illustrate that such survival did take place and “ it is hoped “
to prompt further research into an interesting ¬eld which still has some-
thing to offer to contemporary theories of the Other.

Theory 1: the Saracens named themselves so, obscuring their descent from Hagar
As described above, this idea seems to have originated in exegesis of Genesis
XVI, which Paul then allegorised in the New Testament in his letter to
the Galatians. In Latin writings, the exegesis was combined with the infor-
mation that the nomadic tribes of northern Arabia and the Sinai peninsula
are called Saraceni. Jerome thus introduced the Saracens into his commen-
taries with reference to the appropriate section of Genesis to support his
belief that they were in fact Ismaelites who had named themselves (falsely)
after Sarah. During subsequent centuries, other authors appropriated the
idea and either cited Jerome verbatim (as did Isidore) or reworded it (as
did Bede). The Latin texts outlining this idea were not translated into Old
English, although one mention of the Ismaelites survives translation in the
Old English Life of Malchus, in a context which suggests to the reader or

Persisting theories about Saracens in post-Conquest England

hearer that they are the same people as the Saracens. However, Orderic™s
piece of twelfth-century exegesis on the Brescian Saracen cook shows that
the received wisdom was still viable in new Latin contexts.
A later and equally impressive example of the encounter between re-
ceived wisdom and new information occurs in the writing of Matthew Paris
(c. 1200“1259), a monk of St Alban™s and a historian interested (and able)
in political matters. His best-known work, the Chronica Maiora, describes
history from creation until AD 1259. The Chronica is largely based on a
chronicle by Matthew™s colleague, Roger of Wendover, but Matthew adds
his own observations and embellishments and, from 1235, is an original
source for history of the period. Under the year 1236, Paris observes:
De Sarracenis
Sarraceni peruerse se putant ex Sarra dici; sed uerius Agareni dicuntur ab Agar,
et Ismaelitae ab Ismaele ¬lio Abrahae. Habraham enim genuit Ismaelem ex Agar
ancilla. Hismael genuit Calcar; Calcar genuit Neptis; Neptis genuit Alumesca . . .
Abdelmelibe genuit Mauia; Mauia genuit Abderrachaman, qui secundum alios Ab-
dimenef dictus est, qui genuit Machometh, qui nunc ueneratur et colitur a Sarrace-
nis, tanquam summus Propheta eorum. Et sciendum quod Mahometh, Mahumeth,
Macometus, Machomectus, Mahum, Maho, idem signi¬cant per diuersas linguas.
Post Machomectum fuit successor tam regni quam superstitionis Catab; post eum
Homar, qui contemporaneus fuit Cosdroe, quem imperator Eraclius interfecit.23
Matthew™s immediate source for the ¬rst sentence, which opens the chapter
on the Saracens, is almost certainly James of Vitry (c. 1160“1240) in his
in¬‚uential Historiae Hierosolomytanae. However, James does not include the
genealogy of Ismael, and his description is not so full as Matthew™s. What is
most striking about the account is its integrated quality. Matthew purports
to state his case completely and with authority. He includes a full genealogy

˜The Saracens perversely believe themselves to be named after Sarah; but they are more
rightly called Hagarenes, from Hagar, and Ismaelites from Ismael the son of Abraham. For
Abraham begat Ismael of Hagar the handmaid. Ismael begat Calcar; Calcar begat Neptis;
Neptis begat Alumesca . . . Abdelmelibe begat Mavia; Mavia begat Abderrachaman,
who according to others is named Abdimenef, who begat Machometh [Muhammad],
who is now venerated and adored by the Saracens, as the greatest of their Prophets. And
it should be known that Mahometh, Mahumeth, Macometus, Machomectus, Mahum,
Maho, mean the same in various languages. After Muhammad the successor of the king-
dom as of the sect was ˜Catab™; after him, « Umar, who was contemporary with Chos-
roes, whom the emperor Heraclius killed™ (Matthew Paris, Chronica maiora, RS 57, III,

Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

for Muhammad (with ˜Catab™ representing ˜al-Kit¯ b™ “ ˜the book™, i.e. the
Qur™¯ n), he lists forms of Muhammad™s name ˜which mean the same in
different languages™, and he nonchalantly locates « Umar in time as the con-
temporary of Chosroes II (emperor 591“628) and Heraclius (emperor 610“
641), rulers respectively of the S¯ sanid and Byzantine empires. All this
demonstrates to the reader Matthew™s control over disparate languages and
histories. At the same time, his impressive account all follows the initial,
de¬nitive statement that the Saracens are so called because they believe
themselves to be descended from Sarah, and that they are in fact descended
from Hagar through Ismael. As represented by Matthew Paris, Latin schol-
arship sees itself in a position to know more about the Saracens than the
Saracens know, or will admit, about themselves. One may note too that
the apparently Arab genealogy posits Ismael as ancestor of Muhammad,
which a contemporary European audience must have taken as additional
con¬rmation of the earlier Christian view: after all, the Saracens themselves
traced their prophet back to Ismael! There is no indication that Matthew
recognised the ancestry to have been honourable in Muslim tradition in
returning to the elder son of the patriarch (and ¬rst monotheist) Abraham,
and dishonourable only according to Christian exegesis; it is also worth
noting that the Muslim tradition makes no mention of the name Saracenus
or of an etymology from Sara, since they are Christian constructions.
Just over a century later, Ranulf Higden (d. 1364) wrote his own popular
history, entitled Polychronicon. This work survives in many manuscripts and
was also translated into English, once by Trevisa and also anonymously,
c. 1440.24 The theory of the Saracens as false claimants to descent from
Sarah appears in it twice. The ¬rst example comes in a section of the work
describing regions of the earth and the geographical peculiarities therein.
On Cedar, Higden writes:
Cedar est regio in superiori parte Palaestinae, quam incoluit Cedar primogenitus
Ismaelis, et post eum Ismaelitae, qui uerius dicuntur Agareni quam Saraceni, quia
de Agar ancilla matre Ismaelis sunt progeniti; sed nomen de Sara sibi usurparunt.25
On the sources and in¬‚uence of the Polychronicon, see Edwards, ˜The In¬‚uence and Audience
of the Polychronicon™, pp. 113“17, and Taylor, The Universal Chronicle, pp. 72“88 and
134“48. Taylor lists 117 surviving copies of the work and nine fragments (pp. 152“9).
˜Kedar is a region in the upper part of Palestine, which Kedar, ¬rstborn of Ismael,
inhabited, and after him the Ismaelites, who are more rightly called Hagarenes than
Saracens, since they are descended from the handmaid and the mother of Ismael, Hagar;
but they usurped the name of Sarah to themselves™ (Higden, Polychronicon, RS 41, I, 126).

Persisting theories about Saracens in post-Conquest England

The phrase uerius dicuntur Agareni suggests that Matthew Paris may have
provided the source for this part of the comment on the Ismaelites; the rest of
the explanation is more abbreviated than Matthew™s, and, presumably, only
a reader who recalled the story of Abraham would appreciate the signi¬cance
that it was Sarah™s name which had been abused. However, it remains clear
that the Saracens had usurped the name and were more properly to be called
after Ismael™s mother, the servant. So far, there is no meaningful difference
between Higden™s version of the story and, say, a comment by Jerome or
Isidore.26 However, the historian goes on to explain the people according
to their description in the apocalypse by pseudo-Methodius: they build no
houses but wander in the desert, and emerge to overthrow cities, de¬le sacred
places, kill priests and tether their beasts in the sacred places, on account
of the sins of the Christians. Higden goes on explicitly to identify this
prophecy with the emergence of Machometus pseudo-propheta who nefariamque
sectam Saracenorum commentauit. As in the example by Matthew Paris, a varied
body of information has been harmonised such that the statement of Saracen
duplicity in the matter of self-naming is cleanly integrated with newer
Higden™s second reference to the Saracens as renamed Ismaelites occurs
in a stretch of early biblical history:

Abrahae natus est Ismael de ancilla Agar, qui tertiodecimo aetatis suae anno circum-
cisus est. Quem ritum adhuc sequuntur Arabes, quorum auctor Ismael fuit. Genesis.
Hic postmodum uir sagittarius effectus progenuit ex sua uxore Aegyptia duodecim
populorum duces, Saracenos, ex parte Sarae se uocantes; cum uerius sint Agareni,
ab Agar matre Ismaelis, siue Ismaelitae ex patre sic dicti, seu Madianitae.27

Higden™s phrasing again recalls that of Matthew Paris, using uerius to de-
scribe the Saracens™ true status as Hagarenes. Also interesting is the reference

Compare, for example, Jerome™s comment that Ismaelites and Hagarenes ˜nunc Sarraceni
appellantur, assumentes sibi falso nomen Sarae quo scilicet de ingenua et domina uideantur
esse generati™, or Isidore™s ˜ut diximus, peruerso nomine Saraceni uocantur, quia ex Sarra
se genitos gloriantur™; see above, pp. 95 and 97.
˜To Abraham of the handmaid Hagar was born Ismael, who in his thirteenth year of age
was circumcised. The which practice the Arabs, of whom Ismael was the father, follow to
this day. Genesis. He, afterwards having become an archer, got of his Egyptian wife twelve
leaders of peoples, Saracens, naming themselves after Sarah “ when they are more rightly
called Hagarenes, after Hagar the mother of Ismael, or Ismaelites, after their father, or
Madianites™ (Higden, Polychronicon, RS 41, II, 290).

Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

to the book of Genesis as the source of the passage which describes the Sara-
cens, when no Saracens appear in the Bible. This, again, is reminiscent
of suggestions by previous authors that there was scriptural authority for
the etymology: Jerome and Isidore had much earlier made statements con-
cerning the Saracens™ Ismaelite identity accompanied by the phrases liber
Geneseos docet. This is not to suggest that the later author is working di-
rectly from either of the pre-Islamic sources; it is only to show that in the
¬fteenth century, as in the ¬fth, reliance was placed where possible on the
Bible as authorisation of a statement. Higden differs from the earlier writers
in clearly identifying the descendants of Ismael not only as Saracens but as
Arabs, who imitate their ancestor ˜to this day™ in the matter of circumcision.
He also includes Madianitae among the names by which the descendants of
Ismael may be known, an uncommon inclusion but not a novel one.28
The translation of Higden™s Latin Polychronicon into English brought the
same information to a vernacular audience, although not, it seems, as wide
an audience as had enjoyed the Latin original.29 This perhaps changed when
Trevisa™s late fourteenth-century translation emerged in print. His version
of the above passages renders them more or less faithfully, with some small
alterations. The ¬rst explanation of the Saracen name thus includes the detail
that ˜for pryde þey toke wrongfulliche þe name of Sarra™, where no equivalent
for pryde exists in the Latin except by inference in the verb usurparunt.30 The
later, anonymous translator, who uses many more Latinisms in his English,
returns to the phrasing of the original with the phrase vsurpenge to theyme the
name of Sara and mentions no explicit ambitious motivation.31
The second passage by Higden is likewise translated into clear English
by Trevisa, and again makes plain the fact that Agarenes or Ismaelites or
even Madianites is a more correct term for the people commonly known
The Canterbury commentator had done the same, and, before him, Jerome had interpreted
the Old Testament Madianites as Ismaelites and Saracens. See above, pp. 104“5 and
118“20. Other Old Testament biblical peoples too might be drawn into the fray. For
example, on the Continent in the early twelfth century, Pope Paschal II had referred to
the unsavory fact that in Spain, Christians suffered ˜per Sarracenorum uel Moabitarum
tyrranidem™ (Epistolae et priuilegia, PL 163, 276).
Taylor, The Universal Chronicle, p. 138, lists nine manuscripts of Trevisa™s English text.
˜þe ofspringe of Cedar and of Ismael were afterwarde i-cleped Ismaelitae, and also Agareni
more ri tfulliche þan Saraceni, for þey come of Agar þat was Ismael his moder and serued
Sarra, but afterward for pryde þey toke wrongfulliche þe name of Sarra and cleped hem
Saraceni™ (Trevisa, trans., Polychronicon, RS 41, I, 127).
Anonymous translation of Polychronicon, RS 41, I, 127.

Persisting theories about Saracens in post-Conquest England

as Saracenys.32 The second, anonymous translator reproduces the same in-
formation but appears slightly put off by the reference to Midianites. He
transforms their appearance into an example of how a patronymic is formed:
˜in trawthe thei [Saracenes] awe to be namede raþer Agarenes, of Agar moder
of Ismael, other elles Ismaelites after Ismael, as Madianites were namede of
Later still, in a further re¬nement of the old etymology, John Foxe wrote
that it was Muhammad himself who changed the name of the Ismaelites
or Hagarenes to Saracens.34 Foxe draws on Polychronicon and indeed cites it
by name on occasion, but the notion that widespread use of the name Sara-
cen arose from Muhammad™s own command must be derived from another
source or from his own views on the subject. Foxe™s chief concern in the
section of Acts and Monuments which treats of Islam is to describe, condemn
and make sense of the Turkish empire, and so he telescopes history, slip-
ping easily from Muhammad™s Saracens to the Ottomans of the fourteenth
century by simply omitting to mention any intervening events. With the
contemporary church ¬rmly in mind, it perhaps made sense for Foxe to at-
tribute the origins of Saracen identity to the apocalyptic years surrounding
the date AD 666 without considering any more ancient provenance, and
then to move straight on to the Turks. This blithe approach appears to have
characterised a number of histories from the same period.35
Occasionally, the case made is more sophisticated. Thomas Newton™s A
Notable Historie of the Saracens, for example, published in the second half of
the sixteenth century, shows new developments in the theory. In the ¬rst
book, Newton explains that four peoples inhabited the Arabian peninsula:
the ancient Arabians; secondly, the Ismaelites (descended from Ismael, son
Trevisa, trans., Polychronicon, RS 41, II, 292“4: ˜Abraham hadde a sone Ismael i-bore of
his seruaunt Agar, þe whiche Ismael was i-circumcised whan he was þrittene ere olde.


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