Traveling Libraries: The Arabic Manuscripts of Muley Zidan and the Escorial Library

In: Journal of Early Modern History
Daniel Hershenzon University of Connecticut

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In 1612, a Spanish fleet captured a French ship whose stolen cargo included the entire manuscript collection of the Sultan of Morocco, Muley Zidan. Soon, the collection made its way to the royal library, El Escorial, transforming the library into an important repository of Arabic books, which, since then, Arabists from across Europe sought to visit. By focusing on the social life of the collection, from the moment of its capture up through the process of its incorporation into the Escorial, this article examines three related issues: the first regards the social trajectories of books and the elasticity of their meaning and function, which radically altered in nature. The second part of the article examines the circulation of the Moroccan manuscripts in relation to a complex economy of restrictions over the reading and possession of Arabic manuscripts in early modern Spain. Finally, the third part focuses on the political and legal debates that ensued the library’s capture, when the collection became the locus of international negotiations between Spain, Morocco, France and the Dutch United Provinces over Maritime law, captives, and banned knowledge. By placing and analyzing the journey of Zidan’s manuscripts within the context of Mediterranean history, the paper explains (1) why Spain established one of the largest collections of Arabic manuscripts exactly when it was cleansing its territories of Moriscos (Spanish forcibly converted Muslims), and (2) why the Moroccan collection was kept behind locked doors at the Escorial.

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