Moorish Scheherazades

I had an interesting chat (ie I listened) with someone the other night about the social position of musicians in the Middle Ages. I didn’t really buy his idea of the musician as The Other–at least not in Spain–but what he told me about Moorish and Jewish musicians in Christian society (as opposed to, for example, “Turkish music” in C18th Western music) was new to me. And it turns out–to my even greater surprise–that many were women. For example, Women and Music: A History (ed Karin Pendle) tells us that:

The eleventh-century court of Poitiers in Occitania included hundreds of Moorish jograresas, who were received as remuneration for assistance given Aragon in the campaign against the Moors in 1064.


Several medieval romances (eg, Aucassin et Nicolette and Bevis of Hampton [Bueve de Hantone in Provençal and Bove d’Ancona in Italian]) include episodes in which a noblewoman disguises herself as a jougleresse by darkening her face and becoming a traveling musician who plays an instrument as well as sings.

The plot of Aucassin et Nicolette is not a million miles away from the Blondel-Richard the Lionheart story, and Anne L Klinck and Ann Marie Rasmussen in Medieval Woman’s Song: Cross-Cultural Approaches suggest a historically and geographically broader basis for this dark/light interplay in general:

There is … evidence of cultural connections between the Middle East and Spain … dating from long before the time of the Moors. Phoenician cults … were transported to North Africa and Spain in ancient times, and may have lingered for many centuries. Certainly they lasted long enough in North Africa for St Augustine to rail against them. In the City of God he speaks of the infamous rites which he witnessed as a young man: the disgraceful shows ( “ludis turpissimis”) in honor of the Heavenly Virgin and Berecynthia, and the parade of harlots ( “meretriciam pompam”) in front of the Virgin Goddess’s statue. The dancing girls of Cadiz mentioned by classical Roman authors like Pliny and Juvenal may represent a tradition giong back to Phoenician settlers of around 1000 BC. Both the Greeks and the Romans regarded the eastern and the western Mediterranean as sources of imported luxury and licentiousness, a view which is reflected in the references to those “girls from Cadiz” who provided erotic entertainment at banquets.

It is quite possible, then, that the Arab literature transmitted by the Moors in Spain reinforced an ancient tradition of erotic songs performed by women. This ongoing tradition may have also contributed to later Hispanic woman’s songs of a more modest kind, that is, the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Galician-Portuguese cantigas de amigo, and the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spanish villancicos. Frede Jensen notes that the vignettes decorating one of the collections of medieval Portuguese lyrics, the Cancioneiro da Ajuda, “depict young girls dancing, true descendants of the famed puellae Gaditanae … ,” and that “Moorish singers and dancers may have also exerted an influence on the joglaresa tradition.”

Since this is fairly speculative stuff it seems a shame to me that Klinck and Rasmussen don’t throw in black gypsy goddess cults (yep, the Virgin of Montserrat is a traveller) and Josephine Baker, but I know that my tastes are not shared by all.

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