Trickster Travels A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds

Natalie Zemon Davis

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

448 Pages



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The man whom historians know as Leo Africanus, author of the first geography of Africa, was born al-Hasan al-Wazzan to a Muslim family that in 1492 moved from Granada to Morocco. In this book, Natalie Zemon Davis offers a study of the fragmentary (and often contradictory) traces that this celebrated figure left behind him, and an interpretation of his extraordinary life and work.
As a young man, al-Hasan traveled extensively on behalf of the sultan of Fez, until he was captured in 1518 by Christian pirates in the Mediterranean and imprisoned by Pope Leo X, then released when he converted to Christianity. For the next decade he lived in Italy as the Christian scholar Giovanni Leono: it was then that he wrote his famous Description of Africa. After the sack of Rome in 1527, it is likely that he returned to North Africa. In her characteristically accessible and engaging way, Davis describes each sector of this dramatic life in detail, scrutinizing the evidence of al-Hasan's movement between cultural worlds, the Islamic and Arab traditions and ideas available to him, and his adventures with Christians and Jews in a European community of learned men and powerful church leaders.
Drawing on all his manuscripts—including ones previously unknown—Davis explores the places and people al-Hasan encountered and the books that shaped his work. We see him studying law and theology in a Fez madrasa; talking with nomads and merchants; reciting poetry; teaching Arabic to a cardinal in Rome; creating an Arabic-Hebrew-Latin dictionary with a scholarly Jew in Bologna. And we see him emerge as an author, using Arabic genres but writing in Italian and Latin for European readers. Davis's work suggests that the experiences and writing of this adventurous border-crosser bear witness to the possibilities for connection, exchange, and even intimacy among peoples living in a divided world, and to the many ways that they negotiate cultural barriers and fuse divergent traditions.


Praise for Trickster Travels

“Few facts exist to illuminate Leo [Africanus's] actual life in Rome, but Davis fills us in on the scholars with whom he may have conversed and the social mores to which he would have had to adjust, arriving at a portrait of ‘a man with a double vision,’ straddling two warring cultures.”—The New Yorker
"The first comprehensive reconstruction of al-Wazzan's life. Drawing on archival material and the accounts of contemporaries, the distinguished historian and author of The Return of Martin Guerre gives a fresh interpretation of The Description of Africa and al-Wazzan that grounds him in the 16th-century world through which he traveled . . . Davis beautifully renders the chapters of al-Wazzan's life."—Los Angeles Times
"Brings the sixteenth-century Mediterranean to life with freshness, vividness, and telling detail."—Clifford Geertz, The New York Review of Books
"Davis has poured new life into an old-fashioned genre: the 'Life and Work' biography re-interpreted as the 'History of the Book' . . . One can read Davis's book and learn a tremendous amount very easily . . . this is a beautifully written and thoughtful book that shows off some of the sophisticated tools for reading and parsing evidence that historians have been developing in recent years . . . Davis is so good at capturing the texture of the past that we can manage the imaginative leap from Fez or Rome to al-Wazzan's life in Fez or Rome . . . With this marvelous book, the trickster has been launched on yet another journey."—Peter N. Miller, The New Republic
"[N]o review can do justice to the intelligence and richness of Davis's book. I wish our politicians and all those who pontificate about Islam would read it. Then the barricades between the West and Islam might at least be lowered."—Allan Massie, The Saturday Telegraph
"Imaginative and erudite . . . [Davis's] ability to coax insights from seemingly dry archives, her use of the strategies of anthropology and literary criticism, and her pursuit of large historical insights through small-scale stories of private lives all make [her] one of the most influential historians alive . . . [Trickster Travels is] yet another eye-opening text."—Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun

"The charged politics and turmoil of [al-Wazzan's] life and times brings history to life, with history professor Davis using manuscripts of the times—including some previously unknown—to explore fully al-Wazzan's image and importance."—The Midwest Book Review
"Davis has produced the best study to date of this enigmatic figure . . . What is perhaps most valuable about this present study is that, for the first time, in order to tell the story of Leo Africanus, systematic and careful use is made by her of the excellent very early manuscript of his Description of Africa, a source that provides vastly improved readings for many passages . . . Here is a fascinating early traveler, straying across the frontier between Islam and Christendom, and Natalie Davis has provided us with the means to get to know him."—L. P. Harvey, Book Forum

“Her virtuosity as a historian, her deep knowledge of Renaissance Europe, her surefootedness, and her lack of timidity make what could well have been an unconvincing narrative in the hands of someone less skilled an inspired meditation on the life of a ‘trickster bird’ who practiced dissimulation in order to survive and produce work that has withstood the tests of time . . . Trickster Travels is an intellectual tour de force, the product of meticulous and passionate inquiry into the universe of North African and Islamic scholarship.”—Susan Gilson Miller, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

“Most readers acquainted with al-Hasan al-Wazzan (b. circa 1486-88), the polymath author of the Libro de la Cosmographia et Geographia de Affrica whose family was exiled from Granada to Fez in 1492, will know through him Amin Maalouf’s novel León l’Africain (1986). Responding to factional strife in Beirut and his exile in France, Maalouf constructed his protagonist as an idealized cosmopolitan paradigm. The ghost of Maalouf’s ‘Leo Africanus is a persistent, if almost invisible, presence in Natalie Zemon Davis’s more nuanced study, which addresses contemporary historiographical concerns with border-crossing . . . Her book is located at, and just beyond, the boundaries of empiricism, without venturing into fictional territory . . . Davis’s reconstruction of the life and cultural contexts of al-Hasan, or Yuhanna al-Asad, Yuhanna the Lion, to use the name he adopted after his conversion and baptism by Pope Leo X in 1520, is a magisterial study of fragmentary sources and, rather frequently, silence. Meticulous archival work—at the Escorial, the Bibliothèque Nazionale Centrale, and in Florence, Modena, Milan and elsewhere—is matched by exceptional methodological imagination.”—Simon Doubleday, Law and History Reviews

“Even in retirement Natalie Davis continues to push the methodological envelope for early modern historians. A longtime expert with creative methods of self-fashioning—Martin Guerre, Fiction in the Archives—she now ventures to craft ‘a plausible life story from materials of the time’ for an author characterized by noteworthy silences. It would have been easier to study ‘what kind of man . . . Europeans preferred him to be’; nevertheless, Davis has convincingly captured a third-person sixteenth-century author calling himself el compsitore or interpres while navigating between Islam and Christianity  . . . Two distinctive features distinguish Davis’s approach to this elusive target. Although he signed himself ‘Johannes Leo’ in the colophon to his longest work, Davis invariably refers to her protagonist after 1520 as ‘Yuhanna al-Asad’ (the Arabic form of his new Christian name, which he used in other colophons) in order to stress the ‘entanglement of values, perspectives, and personae in his life in Italy’ when composing all his surviving works. Another major strategy is to guide readers through the long manuscript on Africa, which justifiably fills the bulk of her study, by frequently recalling the two tales (which he either reworked or invented) that began it. The first informed readers that el compositore intended to be honest even when his material was unpleasant; the other explained how he had to change forms (from a fish to a bird, in his version) in order to shuttle between two worlds  . . . It is difficult to do justice to Davis’s study in this brief space. Few of her peers have moved so comfortably between Jewish and Christian life in early modern Europe. Here she extends her reach toward Islam, as important in contemporary Europe as it was five centuries ago, through analyzing the writings of a faqi who mingled extensively with Jews in Renaissance Italy . . . Her erudition is exemplary, including acknowledging assistance when translating terms from Arabic or Hebrew. She stalks Yuhanna al-Asad as relentless as she once did Martin Guerre, tracking down both contradictions and omissions in surviving evidence about them.”—William Monter, Sixteenth Century Journal
"Trickster Travels is a masterpiece of the historian's craft and craftiness. A brilliant storyteller, Natalie Zemon Davis reconstructs the life of Al-Hasan al-Wazzan, the great Renaissance geographer known to the West as Leo Africanus. And what a life it was: exile from Muslim Spain in the wake of the Catholic conquest; restless travels in Africa in the service of the sultan of Fez; capture by pirates and imprisonment in Rome; conversion to Christianity and release from prison; an outpouring of remarkable books, introducing Africa and Islam to European intellectuals; and finally a return to North Africa and to the language, culture and faith in which he had been raised. Davis' great gift lies not only in her tenacious ability to follow this twisting path but also in her scholarly determination to tease out its rich implications. This is an essential book for anyone who wishes to understand what it means to live between two violently warring worlds."—Stephen Greenblatt

"Davis sustains her reputation as one of the most exciting historians of the early modern period . . . her text is backed by scrupulous and exhaustive scholarship . . . [A] brilliant study . . . Highly recommended."—Library Journal
"Davis performs a sterling service in disentangling the twisted threads of al-Hasan  al-Wazzan's fascinating life. Better known in the West as Leo Africanus, he was one of the Renaissance's greatest geographers and the author of a Europe-wide bestseller, The Description of Africa (1550). Born a Muslim in Granada in 1492, al-Hasan al-Wazzan traveled widely as an ambassador and merchant throughout Africa, a continent then a mystery to Europeans, but was captured by Spanish pirates in 1518, presented to Pope Leo X and ostensibly converted to Christianity while explaining Islam to his bewildered audience. Al-Hasan al-Wazzan had the (mis)fortune to live in 'interesting times': the Ottomans were on the march, the Habsburgs were on the rise and the Protestants were alarming the pope, yet al-Hasan al-Wazzan managed to flit among a myriad of worlds (including, Davis speculates, taking a formerly Jewish wife). Eventually, he returned to a North Africa driven by turmoil and slaughter, and disappeared from our view. He rose above hard-drawn lines and presented 'himself simply as an independent polymath,' says Davis, and his life provides a lesson in the 'possibility of communication and curiosity in a world divided by violence.'"—Publishers Weekly

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Read an Excerpt


Living in the Land of Islam

SITTING IN A ROMAN PRISON in 925/1519, a Muslim captive decided to write his three-part name in Arabic on a manuscript he had borrowed from the Vatican Library: al-Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Wazzan (figure 1). So we learn that his father was Muhammad and his grandfather Ahmad al-Wazzan. "Al-Fasi," he continued, showing his origins in the Arabic fashion, "from Fez," though elsewhere he inserted "al-Gharnati" to make clear he had been born in Granada and then brought up in Fez.1

Would that al-Hasan al-Wazzan had been as forthcoming

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  • Natalie Zemon Davis

  • Natalie Zemon Davis is Henry Charles Lea Professor of History Emerita at Princeton University. Her books include The Return of Martin Guerre, Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives, and Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision. She lives in Toronto, Canada.
  • Natalie Zemon Davis Ingrid von Kruse