Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds
By Natalie Zemon Davis
Published in October 2010
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Trickster Travels is the story of Joannes Leo Africanus de Medici, also known as al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan.
Leo Africanus was a sort of Muslim Marco Polo. He was born in Granada, in Islamic Spain to a wealthy Muslim family. His family was forced to flee due to the war, and he spent his childhood and teenage years in Morocco. Eventually, he became a Muslim diplomat, where he visited what he calls “the land of the blacks” (Subsaharan Africa). There, he reports flourishing technologically advanced Muslim city states within the Songhai Empire and Sudan. He then is sent on diplomatic missions to Mali, Tunis, Arabia, and Egypt.
On his way back home, Christian pirates capture his ship and he is sold as a slave. Because he is literate and well educated, he is sent to serve in the court of Pope Leo X de Medici. There, he is (perhaps forcefully) converted to Christianity and adopts his Christian name Joannes Leo Africanus de Medici. Pope Leo X “adopts” him into the Medici family.
He serves as a translator and scribe for the pope. He lives with several other captured Muslims, including a black African, Jews, and Eastern Christians. He translates many important documents. Eventually, he wrote several books in Italian about his travels. After the sack of Rome in 1527, he escapes, making his way back to Morocco where he dies.
I absolutely love stories about long distance trade in the Middle Ages. The tone is very different from that of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta - first, Leo is not a gross sexpat. He seems very decent. Second, Leo is very learned while Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta are distinctly roguish and proletarian. Finally, he makes many anthropological and political observations, usually from a proto-libertarian perspective.
This book might not be suitable for people who have not already studied history. There are many references that could be quite confusing for those unfamiliar with Renaissance or Islamic history. Luckily, these are my two main areas of interest. The writing style is quite dull and academic. I really enjoyed it, and learned a lot. I recommend this book if you are up to it.
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