Category Archives: Muslims

Bread, the staff of life: an update

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I bake a lot of bread these days; I very rarely buy any storebought bread, unless it’s something like potato bread. At first, I was using traditional yeast. When I started exploring historical baking—particularly medieval baking—I realized very quickly that any bread before commercial yeast was available in the 1800s was going to be sourdough.

I had clues about traditional Sicilian bread from Mary Taylor Simeti’s “Pomp and Sustenance.” In it, she gives a recipe for traditional Sicilian bread, which I have quoted in my paper on Sicilian food on academia.edu. Even though the recipe uses commerial yeast, she notes that some bakers use a “criscenti”, a bit of dough from the bread batch preserved in olive oil, as a starter for the next batch of bread. This bit of dough would accumulate other yeasts and lactobacilli, and so on and so on.

Inadvertently, I think Simeti gave another clue as to how some Sicilians created their own starters and introduced wild yeasts to their loaves. She said one old woman told her that in her tiny mountain village while she was growing up, the women would knead elderflowers into their dough: Elderflower contains wild yeasts, which makes the flower a good candidate for fermentation for elderflower cordials and champagnes.

Today, elderflower-infused dough is essential for the production of vastedda, a focaccia-like bread filled with sliced tuma and salami. In this article, a more thorough description of vastedda is provided:

Vastedda con sambuco

The last specialty we will be featuring takes us to Parco dei Nebrodi, a protected natural area that extends between the provinces of Messina, Catania and Enna. In Troina, a village in the verdant mountains of the Enna province is where vastedda cu sammuccu, or, vastedda with elderflower is made. According to different sources, the term vastedda (or guastedda) could derive from the ancient French term gastel or Germanic wastel. In Sicilian, this word has several meanings, the majority of which refer to bread products. The one exception is in Valle del Belice, between Agrigento, Trapani and Palermo, where vastedda is a PDO protected cheese (Vastedda del Belice Dop).”

My own sourdough was derived from a starter given to me by a friend. It was originally white, but I fed it durum wheat flour over time to make it an all-durum one.

I have no idea how the microbiota of my starter compares with that of traditional Italian breads. There is actually a research paper, from the Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, that does profile the microbiotas of 19 traditional Italian sourdoughs, but I am no scientist and I do not have access to a lab to profile my starter. But I can tell you one thing: my bread is delicious.

My next step is getting some coarser semolina flour, possibly traditional Indian atta flour, and create a starter and bread from that. But that is an experiment for another day.

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Rebab rehab

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Rebab rehab

Another long pause between entries. And this time, I am not writing about food. I do continue to bake my sourdough bread, but due to a starter mishap, am only down to white right now and have not yet restarted the semolina.

I’ve been playing more music with my friends in the Bhakaili Branslers this year. Mostly I play frame drums, but I want to start playing more stringed instruments again. As much as I love my Larrivee 3/4 parlor guitar, however, it is not period to my 12th century Sicilian persona.

A citole or rebab would be much more in keeping, but I have not had a lot of spare money as of late, especially for a custom-built instrument. However, a solution seems to have presented itself. Back in the winter, I noticed, in a local antique store, something dubbed an “Indian guitar.” It was only $50, so I bought it.

It turned out to be an Afghani rebab, and it is a direct descendant of the Persian or medieval Middle Eastern rebab, seen here in a mural from the Cefalu Cathedral.

Cefaluluteplayer

The rebab is now in the hands of Paul Butler (known in the SCA of Master Arden of Icombe) for a complete rehab. There is a lot that needs to be done to it to make it playable. Paul told me, only half jokingly, that the instrument was probably made on some mountainside in Afghanistan in the 1970s with just a hook knife, a chisel, and a file, and whatever materials the maker could lay his hands on. The fretboard was actually nailed on, with actual scavenged building nails, probably because the maker didn’t have access to decent glues.

Part of the rehab will entail putting a solid top on it, instead of animal skin, for stability’s sake and less worry about skin replacement later. All of the pegs need to be replaced, and the bridge and nut need to be replaced. Of course the fretboard needs to be glued on instead of nailed, and there will be new strings. Tuning will probably be in “standard,” or as what is inferred as standard tuning, with a set of drone or sympathetic strings. Paul has more information about citoles and their theoretical tuning here.

There’s some debate about these instruments were played. Modern Afghani musicians play their rebabs like a a guitar or any non-bowed stringed instrument (here is a very good video that not only shows it being played, by a musician named Udi Ben Kna’an, but talks about how the rebab is constructed). Paul notes in his instrument-building and research pages (found here) that rebabs were bowed in period. But the beam painting from Cefalu Cathedral and paintings from the Capella Palatina muquarna show the rebabs played as nonbowed instruments. A luthier in Sicily, Giuseppe Severini, has his own reproduction of a plucked rebab from Sicily here. To me, it doesn’t really look like the one in the Cefalu Cathedral or any instruments depicted on the Capella Palatina muquarna. Then again, these visuals are very abstract. And some details, you have to use artistic imagination to fill them in.

I look forward to having my rehabbed rebab back before the end of this year – Paul’s very busy and I am very grateful he chose to take this beast of a project on. I know it’s in the best of hands now.

 

Spinning as a noble woman’s activity

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I’m right now working on a baby blanket for a dear friend. Instead of going to the craft store and buying some big ol’ skeins of acrylic, I decided to be totally crazy and knit the blanket out of an organic merino that I handspun myself. And I don’t use a spinning wheel. I use a top-whorl drop spindle. The yarn weight is fingering size or thereabouts. Between the yarn weight and the intricacy of the knit (a basketweave) and the fact that I have to repeatedly stop knitting to spin up more yarn, to say this blanket is taking awhile to finish is an understatement.

The Royal Palace in Palermo was renowned in the Norman era for its tiraz, or silkworks, and the island produced a lot of silk, in raw materials (reeled silk and yarns) and in finished fabric. The amount of silk used by the palace actually amazed visitors to the island; Alexander of Telese famously noted that during the coronation feast of Roger II, even the servers were clad in silk. Though the embroiderers at the tiraz seemed, especially in the Norman later years, to be eunuch males (ibn Jubayr interviewed one of these embroiderers when he visited Sicily in the reign of William II), many of the weavers, and definitely the spinners, were women and girls.

And one thing knitting my blanket and my take on the cap of St. Denis has given me insight into, every single pair of hands that could possibly produce threads and yarns were probably needed to keep the tiraz’s production up to speed. Most of the scholars who have written about the tiraz are often men and definitely not engaged in fiber arts. I don’t think they understand just how intensively every woman and girl needed to spin and reel, and how long this takes.

This, my friends, is a degummed silk cocoon in which the worm has been allowed to get out:

Because of the closeup, this looks much larger than it actually is. It’s actually only about two inches long and fluffy because the fibers have been pulled out in the action of taking it out the bag (where it stuck to the mass of cocoons in there). I’ve angled it so you can see the open end. Handling it is very interesting; the fibers catch upon the slightest roughness on my fingertips. Shea butter is my friend.

This is my spindle. That’s about half a cocoon hanging off there, the fibers of which I am drawing onto the spindle as singles, and then using a modern-day ply on the fly technique to make into a 3-stranded yarn for knitting. That’s the result of about 20 cocoons so far.

This type of cocoon would not have been used by the spinners of the tiraz, however; because the worm was allowed to chew its way out, there are many short and broken fibers. Because of this, instead of getting a nice long continuous fiber when I spin, the short and broken fibers produce a thread that’s slubby. What the spinners would have used was reeled silk. Let Cindy Myers, the Silkewoman, show you her method of how to reel silk from cocoons and what reeled silk looks like.

Think of all the silk that had to be reeled, twisted, dyed, and woven to produce King Roger II’s cloak. Really think about this, and you can understand why Roger’s palace (and the palaces of William I and William II) were filled with mostly unnamed women and girls (we only know the regents such as Adelaide and the queens such as Elvira). Whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, noble, free woman, or slave, they weren’t sitting on their butts praying and embroidering (the noble Christian ladies), bathing in fountains and eating peeled grapes (the Muslim slave girls) and waiting for the king and his warriors to get home. We already know that in 1147, when the Normans sacked Thebes, hundreds of silk workers, mostly women, were taken back to Palermo to help improve the tiraz. But there was a tiraz at the palace when the Muslims held the island, and after the Normans conquered the island, they certainly would have wanted to continue such a prestigious – and lucrative – business.

One thing that I’ve built into my persona, Adelisa Salernitana, is that she spins silk yarns and threads as a supplementary source of income and as an activity as a royal lady-in-waiting. It is known that in the nearby Fatimid court, royal women did spin; famously, Rashida, the daughter of the caliph al-Mu’izz, was said to have “earned her living from spinning yarn and never laid a hand on anything from the royal treasury for her subsistence.” Incidentally, her sister ‘Abda has reputed to have at least 30,000 pieces of Sicilian cloth at her death (“Women and the Fatimids in the World of Islam,” by Delia Cortese and Simonette Calderini).

Keeping the women gainfully occupied was also a concern of the Fatimid vizier al-Afdal, who at his death in 1121 had among his effects two trunks full of gold needles for the use of the female slaves and the women of his harem.

Here’s another example of how important this work was even in upper class households. A century after Roger II lived, the Damascene scholar Shihab al-Din Abu Shama composed a poem in praise of his wife, Sitt al-‘Arab bt. Sharaf al-Din al-‘Abdari.  He extols her noble lineage, her wisdom, her mercy towards orphans, and her many virtues, including her contribution to the household income. He writes:

She always attends to household chores

despite her youth she shies away from nothing

tiraz embroidery, needlework with golden threads

cutting cloth, sewing and spinning

She moves from this to that and from that to this

not to mention the cleaning, the cooking and the washing.

(“Marriage , Money, and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society,” by Yosef Rapoport)

I reason that if Adelisa wanted to build a life for herself and her soldier-husband outside the court, she had to raise money, and the best way for her to do that – and the most traditional – was by spinning. With a royal workshop to be supplied, threads she spun would have gone into secular and sacred textiles, to her profit.

In motion, part 2

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The beautiful and fabulous dancer Lee Ali has just shared several photos of my performance at the Tapestry dance event in Rhode Island last September. It was the first time I tried to recreate a “Sicilian dancing girl” performance.

The costume, as you can see, moved well, although I really still have to fix the sleeves and neck of the overtunic, and get proper headgear.

What HAVE I been doing of late?

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A friend of mine had pointed out that I had not been active here since January.

Ooops. Well I can say that work began to eat my life steadily starting just after the holidays, and then there was preparation for some dance performances in February, March, April, and May. And then there was my sister’s wedding as well.

But I have completed a few projects and did some displaying and teaching. There is my interpretation of a knit cap from the 14th century (seen in the thumbnail), done in handspun silk. It’s based on the cap in byssus found at the cathedral of St. Denis, France. Here is my paper on it. I displayed the cap and the paper at the Mudthaw Arts and Sciences competition back in March. Here is a closeup of the cap so you can see the stitches:

I also did some cooking for that event, in which I contrasted two recipes featuring rabbit – the Qanura of rabbit (rabbit in walnut and vinegar sauce) from the Anonymous Andalusian cookbook, and the traditional Sicilian rabbit in sweet and sour sauce. Here is my paper about that.

And last month, I taught a class about Norman and Muslim Sicily at the East Kingdom War Camp in the Barony of Carillion in June. I have no paper to go with that, but I did share some food – my version of the emir of Catania’s chicken dish, a cold salad of roasted eggplant, chopped celery, capers, pistachios, sugar, mint, and vinegar, and things to nibble on – tuna-stuffed olives, and chilled cherries. It was a warm day and the cold food was welcomed by the class attendees. I gave a brief history of the Norman kingdom and the Muslims before them, and what happened to the Muslims after the island was conquered by the Normans.

I’ve also been doing some reading. Right now, I am trying to get through Alex Metcalfe’s “The Muslims of Medieval Italy.” It’s been slow going as I have had a lot of distractions. But it is essential reading for trying to understand the Muslim influences in the culture of the Norman kingdom.

I am hoping that a class slot opens for the East Kingdom University Collegium in August, because I would like to teach how to use a silk sari to create a 12th century Norman Sicilian tunic. But we’ll see about that.

So that’s about it for now. More to come!

A Sicilian medieval luthier and medieval Muslim figural painting

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I love the Internet, in that it can bring to light information and bring similarly minded people together.

My early post on the music of Al Qantarah brought the attention of a musician, scholar, and luthier from Catania, Giuseppe Severini. Signore Severini made some interesting comments on the music of the Troparium, and I welcome them as part of a debate that I hope we’ll continue to have.

In looking at Signore Severini’s musical instruments site. I was quite excited to see that he has made a copy of one of the many Arabic stringed instruments seen in the painted ceiling beams of the Cathedral of Cefalu.

For more images from the ceiling beams, I recommend Mirjam Gelfer-Jorgensen’s “Medieval Islamic Symbolism and the Paintings of the Cefalu Cathedral.” Gelfer-Jorgensen’s book traces the connections between the imagery of pre-Islamic Persia and the ancient Middle East to the imagery of medieval Islam. The paintings at Cefalu and in the Cappella Palatina muqarnas are really the only existing figural images, as they would have been featured in architectural spaces,  from the early medieval Muslim Mediterranean. Similar paintings adorned the Fatimid palaces of Cairo, but all traces of them have been obliterated. However, lustreware plates of the Abbasid era give us another glimpse of this figural tradition in the Mediterranean.

Fatimid instrumentalist

Musician with rebab

Of course, what I REALLY want now for Christmas is that chitarrino/rebab. But I highly doubt I’d be able to afford Signore Severini’s workmanship. And I have about as much ability with woodworking tools as one of my cats.

The Cappella Palatina muqarnas

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The Cappella Palatina muqarnas

EDIT: I’ve made some scans and have adjusted the images as best as possible. Wish I could have copied these in glorious color, but sometimes you have to work with what you can get.

On Thursday, I braved the holiday tourist crowds and took the train from Trenton to New York City. My destination: The Stephen A. Schwarzman building of the New York Public Library. My reason: The library had this set of books and they had kindly reserved them for me in the arts and architecture reading room.

One book of this four-volume set was my holy grail of Norman Sicily research. Before going to Sicily in November 2006, I had read several mentions of a fantastic wooden painted stalactite muqarnas ceiling in the Cappella Palatina of the Norman Palace – the ceiling allegedly had scores of Islamic paintings of courtiers, musicians, dancers, and drinkers, done in the 1130s-1140s. I could not WAIT to see this ceiling for myself, in real life. So, imagine my disappointment when we reached the Cappella Palatina with our tour group … to look up at the nave ceiling and see nothing but netting. Yes, the chapel was in the process of being restored and the ceiling was being worked on. The rest of our time in Palermo, I scoured stores trying to find a book of photographs of the chapel. I did find one book which had great photos of the mosaics, but just one small, rather blurry photo of the entire nave ceiling.

After getting home, I started to run down the references to the Cappella Palatina ceiling, and found that they led to one book published in 1950 by the Italian historian Ugo Monneret de Villard, “Le pitture musulmane al soffitto della Cappella Palatina in Palermo.” A search on Abebooks yielded one copy, for about $85, with shipping. I ordered it and waited (it was coming from Italy). Once it arrived, I was a little disappointed. It’s wonderful, but it’s in black and white, and contains only a small number of the paintings. Still, it was better than nothing.

Last year, there was news that the chapel restoration was finished and there would be a lavish four-volume edition by the Italian publisher Franco Cosimo Panini, and one of the books would contain full-color photos of the muqarnas alone. As you can see from the previous link, this would not be something I would be able to purchase, and I looked for a nearby university library that would allow me to access the books. The closest in distance to me is the Firestone Library at Princeton University. Not only would it cost me more than $200 a year for access to the books, it seemed that since the books arrived in the fall, they were nonstop checked out by professors and students in the university’s medieval studies department. Bless you, New York Public Library. Once I found out that they had the books, they reserved them for me. For free. I would just have to get my butt up to New York.

So, I did. And made a stack of photocopies as well.

What I found out:

Admittedly, I was a bit focused on the types of images I paid attention to. I was specifically looking at the ladies – the dancers and the musicians. And the new photos did not disappoint.

One of the seven musicians playing goblet drums that I found in the muquarnas images.

The musicians played a variety of instruments – ouds, rebabs, end-blown flutes, psalteries, tanburs, and drums. The most common type of drums portrayed, surprisingly, were small goblet drums, the head played with right hand while the left hand gripped the instrument at the bottom or the throat. Unlike a Persian tanbur, a Turkish darbuka, or an Egyptian doumbek, the drums were shaped symmetrically; the bottom was as large as the top, and the throat very small, with a molded ring around it. I counted seven representations of goblet drums, played by female and male musicians, as opposed to four paintings where the ladies were playing frame drums (two round and two square drums – no jingles on them, unlike riqs). Three ladies were playing wooden clappers – sticks held in the hands. One female and one male musician were playing oval drums that were held on the lap and struck with a stick held in one hand. There were absolutely NO portrayals of finger cymbals of any kind.

The dancers were a revelation. Some of them held short scarves in their hands; one had thick golden bangles on her wrists; some of them danced as they played their instruments. What I had thought, in this photo,  was a long single scarf whipping around her was actually the very long ends of her ‘isaba (head scarf), trailing from the large knot on the right side of her head. Most of the ladies, dancers and musicians, wore these very long ‘isabas wrapped around her takiya (also called taquiyah), a sort of bulbous head cap (more about the takiya can be found here, in the “First Encyclopedia of Islam: 1913 to 1936”).  The fringe of their hair could clearly be seen on their foreheads, peeking out from their headgear, as well as their curled side locks on their cheeks. Many of them had a dot between the brows, and three small dots low on the cheek. Some of the male musicians had them as well, as well as the male nadim, or drinking courtiers. I theorize this was makeup and tattoos (especially as the Berber ladies of North Africa tattooed their faces well into the early 20th century, and Sicily had a lively trade with Fatimid Egypt – which included slaves).

(You can see a color picture of the scarf dancer and some of the other figures, very briefly, in a photo montage, at the Fondazione Federico II Website.)

The ladies not wearing the ‘isaba/takiya/taquiyah head gear wear what look surprisingly like large crowns. They in fact bear a very strong resemblance to the Persian headgear worn by Duchess Roxane Farabi, but there is no center cap visible nor a spinel, and they seem to have the ends of a long scarf trailing from them. These may be the original form of the taj (crown) worn by traditional Tunisian brides and the headdresses worn by classical Andalusian musicians of Morocco, and probably derived from Persia.

The scarf dancer and her attending musicians. Note the taj-like headdresses the musicians are wearing.

The tunics were painted in shades of pale blue, pale green, red, and yellow. Some were plain, some were patterned, with with a floral scroll or geometric, regular designs (and in two cases with patterns representing large white daisies). Interestingly, the pants worn under the tunics do not seem to resemble the sirwals popular in the SCA, using Uncle Rashid’s pattern. For one thing, they seemed to scrunch at the ankle; admittedly this effect could be achieved if the pants were long and bunched up. The legs also seemed straighter, but again, the pattern can be modified to provide this effect

Fortunately for us, on page 526 of the volume, a woman is depicted with the front of her tunic hiked up at the center through her belt, clearly showing her drawers. These seem to have soft, loose legs, ending in the ankle scrunches. They are definitely not the crazy Michelin Man-pants worn by the 16th century Morisco women of Spain.”Our Lady of the Underpants” is flanked by two musicians,  a lady playing a fipple flute and another playing a goblet drum. Perhaps she is getting ready to cut a rug and needed to get her robe out of the way?

Thank you, “Our Lady of the Underpants,” for flashing your drawers at us. Generations of medieval Islamic costumers will be grateful. On a more serious note, check out the taj-like headdresses of her musician attendants.

Very few of the ladies seemed to wear any sort of belt – and the ones who did were musicians, not dancers. One seated musician has a golden belt with three golden balls hanging at the front. I have no idea how this belt was constructed, and the painting is not detailed enough to make a guess. The belt of “Our Lady of the Underpants” is a simple band.

Note this frame drummer’s instrument has a word in Arabic on its surface. If you can read it, please let me know what it says!

What does this all mean for my garb? It’s back to the drawing board for my ‘isaba. It will have to be a lot longer than I had originally thought, and the ends will have to be tapered. I will try using a soft, fine white silk – possibly silk broadcloth, if I can find it, but a heavier-weight habotai may have to do.

The blue silk tunic I constructed for Bhakail Yule and future events still needs its brocade hem. My red tunic with the golden dot pattern needs its shoulder/upper arm bands.

Most of all, I need proper pants. Next step – play with Master Rashid’s pattern.

Oh, and I need a proper taqiyah. My original cap pattern needs to be redrafted, yet again.

I have a lot of work in front of me.