Anselm Turmeda, born in Majorca in 1355, was a Christian friar and author considered to be one of the founding fathers of Catalan literature. But he shocked his admirers in Europe by converting to Islam, emigrating to Tunisia, and becoming the accomplished author of Arabic polemics under the name Abdullah al-Tarjumani. He died in Tunis in 1423. It was only in the early nineteenth century did scholars discover that these two renowned authors of Arabic and Catalan literature were in fact the same person. The breadth of his learning in both ‘Western’ and Islamic literature is not unheard of in the era, but his renown as an author simultaneously writing in the languages of Islam and Christendom makes him a very rare, possibly unique, literary figure.
Turmeda straddled the worlds of Christendom and Islam not just in his life but also his work, which perhaps uniquely embodies the cultural cross-pollinations of the medieval Mediterranean. His most famous work in the West is Disputa de l’Ase (‘The Donkey’s Dispute’), a comic novel about a debate between a friar and a donkey about whether animals or humans are the superior beings. Its satirical observations express a subversive and irreverent take on man’s place in the universe – one that presages Rabelais, and exemplifies the earliest stirrings of humanist currents in Western thought. But the book also bears the clear influence of Muslim philosophy: the arguments cited by the donkey are traceable to Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa, the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity, a tenth century neo-Platonic Arabic encyclopaedia. The novel is most likely to be the earliest text to transmit Arabic ideas to Europe – part of the vast traffic of ideas from the Middle East that informed and shaped the Renaissance in Europe.
Here is an extract from this novel, which has never been translated and published in English. Translated by Cairo-based writer Tanjil Rashid, it is a portion from the Middle French of the oldest extant version of the text, printed in Lyon in 1544, the closest to an authoritative version we have. Turmeda’s original text was composed in Tunis in 1417 in the Old Catalan language before being disseminated throughout Europe, but no copy of it survived the book burnings of the Spanish Inquisition. So technically this is a modern English translation of a Renaissance French translation of a medieval Catalan original based on Arabic sources from late antiquity inspired by ancient Greek ideas and authored in Tunisia by a Muslim convert from Majorca!