From an Arab Queen to a Yiddische Mama: The Travels of Marital Advice around the Medieval Mediterranean

in Medieval Encounters
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This study explores the travels of a literary anecdote about ten pieces of advice that a mother gave her daughter on the eve of the latter’s marriage. Tracing the various incarnations of the anecdote from its first attestation in ninth-century Arabic works to later versions in Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, Italian, Catalan, and Yiddish demonstrates the connectivity of the medieval Mediterranean and the porous nature of political, religious, and linguistic borders when it comes to popular ethical literary texts. Studying the changes introduced in each new incarnation allows us to explore the process of translation and adaptation involved in cultural transmission between different linguistic and religious communities. The travels of the anecdote also highlight the commonalities and differences in normative gender roles in different societies across the medieval Mediterranean.

Medieval Encounters

Jewish, Christian and Muslim Culture in Confluence and Dialogue




Nadia Maria El Cheikh, “In Search for the Ideal Spouse,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 45 (2002): 179–196 at 186–187; Mohja Kahf, “Braiding the Stories: Women’s Eloquence in the Early Islamic Era,” in Windows of Faith: Muslim Women Scholar-Activists in North America, ed. Gisela Webb (Syracuse, ny: Syracuse University Press, 2000), 147–171 at 153; and Simon Swain, Economy, Family, and Society from Rome to Islam: A Critical Edition, English Translation, and Study of Bryson’s Management of the Estate (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 352.


See Esperanza Alfonso, “Medieval Portrayals of the Ideal Woman,” Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies 3 (2011), 141n57, where she comments in relation to this anecdote that the “wide circulation of wisdom contents across genres [. . .] deserves further scholarly attention.”


Ibn ʿAbd Rabbihi, al-ʿIqd al-farīd, 7:119–120.


Jacob b. Shimʿon b. Anatoli, Malmad ha-talmidim (Lyck: Mekize Nirdamim, 1866), 19a–23b.


See Torollo, “Wisdom Literature in Judeo-Arabic,” 95.


Khalaṣ, Sefer ha-musar, 155; and Issac ben Eliakum, Sefer Lev Tov, 87b.


Abohab, Menorat ha-maʾor, 369; and Altschul-Jeruschalmi, Sefer Brantspigel, 29b.


Alice A. Hentsch, De la littérature didactique du moyen âge s’adressant spécialement aux femmes (Cahors: Imprimerie Coueslant, 1903), 119–121, 189–191.


Pietro Gori, ed., I dodici avvertimenti che deve dare la madre alla figliuola quando la manda a marito (Florence: Salani, 1885), 9. Without identifying the manuscript directly, Gori writes that the text was discovered in the middle of the nineteenth century in an old codex of Francesco Trucchi’s. Gori dated the text to around 1300 and published it as a present for the wedding of his friends Paolo Baccani and Adele Landi. We would like to thank Rena Lauer and Elizabeth Mellyn for helping us obtain a copy of this work.


Gori, I dodici avvertimenti, 15.


Gori, I dodici avvertimenti, 11.


Hentsch, De la littérature didactique, 189.


Cantavella, Alfons el Vell, 86.


Gori, I dodici avvertimenti, 16.


Cantavella, Alfons el Vell, 90.


Gori, I dodici avvertimenti, 15.


Cantavella, Alfons el Vell, 88.


Compare with Sharom Farmer, “Persuasive Voices: Clerical Images of Medieval Wives,” Speculum 61 (1986): 517–543; Carolyn P. Collette, “Heeding the Counsel of Prudence: A Context for the ‘Melibee,’ ” The Chaucer Review 29 (1995): 416–433; Elaine Tuttle Hansen, “The Powers of Silence: The Case of the Clerk’s Griselda,” in Women and Power in the Middle Ages, ed. Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski (Athens, ga: University of Georgia Press, 1988), 230–249.


See Hull, Chaste, Silent and Obedient, 16; and Tova Rosen, “Representaciones de mujeres en la poesía hispano-hebrea,” in La sociedad medieval a través de la literatura hispanojudía: VI curso de cultura hispano-judía y sefardí de la Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha, ed. Ricardo Izquierdo and Ángel Sáenz-Badillos (Cuenca: Universidad de Castilla La Mancha, 1998), 123–138 at 125.


See, for example, El Cheikh, “In Search for the Ideal Spouse,” 191–193, and Weitz, “Al-Ghazālī, Bar Hebraeus, and the ‘Good Wife,’ ” 219–220. For a Jewish example, see Judah Ibn Tibbon’s instruction to his son in Israel Abrahams, Hebrew Ethical Wills, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, pa: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1926), 1:78 and 1:89–90.


See, for example, Y. Tzvi Langermann, “One Ethic for Three Faiths,” in Monotheism and Ethics: Historical and Contemporary Intersections among Judaism, Christianity and Islam, ed. Y. Tzvi Langermann (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 197–218, and the work of the research group aliento (Linguistic analysis, intercultural aspects of sapiential utterances and their transmission from East to West and West to East) in Paris and Nancy, France, and its regular publication, Aliento: Échanges Sapientiels en Mediterranée, which includes studies dealing with the transmission of popular ethical and sapiential material across medieval traditions.


Rella Kushelevsky, “Intercultural Encounters in Collective Narratives: The Transition of ‘The Shining Robe’ from North Africa to Ashkenaz via Provence,” Medieval Encounters 19 (2013): 259–273 at 260.


Ibn Qutayba, ʿUyūn al-akhbār, 4:76. This advice appears in other works; for example, Manṣūr b. Ḥusayn al-Ābī, Nathr al-durr, 6:150–51, and al-Ghazzālī, Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, 2:51. From Arabic, this anecdote reached the Syriac Christian work of Bar Hebraeus, Ethicon, ed. Paulus Bedjan (Lipsiae: Otto Harrassowitz, 1898), 150–151. The Syriac version clarifies that such advice comes from “an evil woman.” While in Arabic it can be assumed that every husband is also a warrior, the Syriac version must present the advice as occasioned by a marriage to a soldier (gabrā pālḥā). We would like to thank Lev Weitz for bringing the Bar Hebraeus version to our attention.


  • ms Hébreu 216, 46v, Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Anatoli’s short comment that he composed the sermon for the wedding of his daughter.
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  • T-S Ar.16.4r. On the right-hand side of this Geniza bifolium is the Midrash of Solomon’s Throne in Judeo-Arabic. On the left-hand side is a Judeo-Arabic rendering of the ten pieces of advice in numbered pairs.

    reproduced courtesy of the syndics of cambridge university library.

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  • This chart shows the arrangement of pieces of advice in the Hebrew, Italian, and Catalan versions and how they relate to each other. The pieces of advice on a light background are shared by the three versions, while those on a darker background are either unique to the text they appear in or shared by only the two Christian versions. The content within circles is information that we want to highlight and will explain in the following paragraphs.
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  • The travels of Umāma bint al-Ḥārith’s marital advice. This map traces the travels of the anecdote around the medieval Mediterranean, noting the language, location, and time of each version. Dates are either the author’s year of death or the year of publication (> means after the date given). Arrows indicating the movement of the anecdote are given only where we have a measure of confidence. Naturally, dates and locations are often approximate. Not all versions are included (e.g., we do not know where Maḥāsin al-ādāb (1467) was composed). Some anecdotes could arguably be placed elsewhere (e.g., Anatoli’s version could be located in 1240 Naples rather than 1220s Provence). This map is meant to convey a general picture of the anecdote’s travels rather than a precise reconstruction. The travels are traced on a map courtesy of
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