Ecumenical Ariosto

One of the things I find most interesting about Orlando Furioso is how Agramant’s knights are portrayed.  Agramant commands a transhistorical army of Moors, Saracens, and Arabs.  The words are often used interchangeably even in the same stanza.  A great example of the mashup is 9.5, when Orlando is first setting out to find Helangelica:

And when the day its shining light displayed,
He wholly searched the Moorish army through.
In that the gentle warrior was arrayed
In Arab weeds, he this might safely do;
And of his purpose came alike in aid
That other tongues beside the French he knew;
And in the African so well was read,
He seemed in Tripoly one born and bred:

The more you read and the more kingdoms are named, you realize Africa embraces everything from Gibraltar to Ethiopia.  And of course, this monster alliance is a stand-in for the Ottoman Empire (the poem is written in 1516 and published in final form in 1532).  It’s a propaganda piece in many ways, much like the Aeneid that inspires it.

Ariosto does not play up the religious differences of the two armies.  There are certainly references to Christianity and Islam, and the Catholic faith permeates the whole work. Two of the Muslim knights do receive baptism before all is said and done, and one of these (spoilers!) turns out to be a Janissary of sorts. But Ariosto’s Muslims are not black devils anymore than his Christians are all white knights.  Tasso, writing a bit later, is much more guilty of this in my opinion.

Dore Gryphon
They all look like this. Whose side is (s)he on?

The knights in this poem, regardless of which side they represent in the war, are all judged by their conformity to the demands of honor and chivalry (whether male or female, an interesting topic for another day).  Knights on both sides meet and fail to meet these demands throughout the poem.  There is a strong sense in which they stand apart as their own transnational cadre, the way superheroes and supervillains aren’t really citizens of any nation.  Ariosto is not shy about who the good guys are, about who should win and who should lose, or even about which religion he thinks is the True One–but he does not execute this by demonizing the opposition.

There is a way in which this homogenizing could be construed as insulting, but I’m not too interested in making that claim myself.  Each character is good or evil based on their virtues and vices, by the choices they make, by the causes they champion.  It would have been an easy (and lazy) move to caricature the Arab-Moor-Saracens in this poem.  The awesome villains in this poem–I’m looking at you, Rodomonte, my sweet love!–are memorable precisely because Ariosto does not do this.

Following Ariosto’s lead, I’ll forgo moralizing about our current world culture on this point.  Instead I’ll let it be a lesson for my cadre at the ERC.


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