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The Courtly Arts of Praise and Insult in Medieval Literature


This dissertation compares the poetry of two political figures, the Buyid vizier al-Sahib Ibn 'Abbad (938-95 CE) and King Alfonso X of Castile (1221-84 CE). I argue that they produced poems to control elite discourse, managing rules of linguistic style and social decorum. In so doing, they ensured an obedient court. This technique is most evident in their authorship of ribald, slanderous poetry, which purported to break down social rules but in fact shaped and enforced the court's normative logic. Ibn 'Abbad, writing Classical Arabic poetry, did not seek to change preexisting notions of high and low speech; nor did Alfonso, who codified the Spanish language and was the most famous troubadour of Galician-Portuguese lyric. Instead, they recognized the utility of writing across the rhetorical spectrum of a courtly poetic tradition. Most of their political forebears and contemporaries limited themselves to writing such poetic motifs as panegyric, chaste love, and friendship. Invective poetry had been considered an outside force, a pastime of disgruntled or merely playful poets seeking to chide or manipulate the patron. Ibn 'Abbad and Alfonso made proprietary, authorial claims to scathing invective as well as grand praise, a combination that allowed them to dominate would-be opponents in the poetic field. I suggest that this dominance of language translates into political advantage, a sign of protection from opportunistic poets and a potential threat to enemies.

Diverging from prior taxonomies of medieval literature, which station panegyric and invective as ethical opposites, I argue that the specific court politics of the Buyid and Castilian court resist this binary reading. The first chapter provides historical and linguistic accounts of the two empires, then details Ibn 'Abbad's and Alfonso's interventions therein. Because they took seemingly contradictory positions in their legislation, administrative prose, official correspondence, rhetoric, and poetry, their work forecloses certain broad arguments on ethics. This breach makes way for my epistemological discussion of poetic form, which connects the poetic analysis in chapters 2 and 3. The study then moves into a structural account of the poetic utterance. In chapter 4, I show how the social hierarchies invented in the poetic text push insistently outward, shifting our critical view toward the hierarchy of the court.

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