How is the Emir of Cordoba like the Queen of Sheba?

When in 865 Emir Muhammad I of Cordoba (r. 852-886) sent back the Frankish envoys he had received from Charles the Bald (r. 843-877) the previous year, he entrusted them with a number of gifts, which they conveyed to Charles at his capital at Compiegne. According to Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims, writing in the Annals of St-Bertin, these included ‘fine cloth of various kinds’, ‘many perfumes’ and ‘camels carrying couches and canopies’.

To say that I have been interested in these camels is perhaps to slightly underplay it [No kidding – Ed.].

Your long-suffering editor experiencing your correspondent’s camel fixation once more

Unwary scholars in half a dozen countries and two continents have had the experience of listening to me talking about these camels. What was meant to be a paragraph in my PhD thesis rapidly escalated into an article, (‘The Camels of Charles the Bald’, Medieval Encounters, 25 (2019), 263-292), and I acquired a healthy quantity of camel-related memorabilia along the way.

Part of what fascinated me about these camels was trying to work out what Charles would have made of them. Camels were decidedly thin on the ground in ninth-century Francia and although some of his courtiers may have encountered them on pilgrimage in the Holy Land, Charles himself had no personal experience with them. Being somewhat pungent and prone to spitting, a close encounter with a camel can be an ambiguous experience for the inexperienced. It is not obvious whether getting a camel as a present is a good or a bad thing.

In order to understand Charles’ response to these camels, I tried to reconstruct the intellectual context by which he would have understood them. Even in the modern world, the way we think about animals is shaped by the culturally-induced associations we have with them. Thus, for instance, a white-headed fish eagle has become synonymous with the United States; and a black-and-white bear with a digestive system that is poorly adapted for its diet has ended up as the symbol of wildlife conservation. This is particularly the case when it comes to diplomatic gifts, which come imbued with meaning (some readers may remember the uproar when in 2009 the newly elected American President Barack Obama presented Prime Minister Gordon Brown with 25 DVDs, a gift widely viewed by the British press as a snub).

Here we can see Joseph being sold by his brothers to a Midianite merchant, complete with camel. Illustration from the Stuttgart Psalter, Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart, Bibl. fol. 23.119r (source).

The range of potential meanings the camels could have had for Charles is large and I discuss them in my article. He and his advisers had access to a huge range of classical and biblical sources of knowledge that refer to camels, and I want to illustrate this point by using this blogpost to talk about one of my favourite readings of the camel, which comes from the Old Testament. Saying that the Bible was important in the medieval world is not exactly a hot take. In addition to its religious significance, Carolingian rulers read the historical books of the Old Testament both as a record of the past and as an example of what it meant to be a king. They drew moral and practical lessons from what they read. Knowledge of scripture was something they shared with both religious and lay elites, meaning that the ideas and stories that a king like Charles encountered in the Bible were familiar to many of the powerful people whose support and participation gave his kingdom its substance.

Charles the Bald’s favourite Biblical king was Solomon, prompting Hincmar to write at length on the monarch in response to Charles’ questions about him. Charles was repeatedly described by his courtiers as ‘our Solomon’ and he seems to have actively encouraged this identification. Famously wise, powerful and successful at bringing about peace, Solomon was a popular model for medieval kings to aspire to. Solomon had additional advantages for Charles, being famous for culture and learning, something that Charles was interested in, while not being famous as a warrior-king. Charles’ military career was decidedly chequered, so Solomon provided a useful archetype for a peaceful king. Charlemagne had been compared to David, so by becoming the new Solomon, Charles could portray himself as the heir to his revered grandfather’s glory.

Camels feature heavily in various contexts in the Old Testament, but one of the most spectacular moments comes when the Queen of Sheba visits Solomon. Both 1 Kings 10:2 and 2 Chronicles 9:1 describe the Queen coming ‘with a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones’. The land of Sheba itself was also associated with camels because of the words of the Prophet Isaiah [60:6]:

The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the Lord. 

Carolingian intellectuals commented on these camels from Sheba, identifying Sheba as the land of the Queen who visited Solomon. The camels represented the gentile souls coming to God, barbarian peoples brought to the light. More prosaically, the camels of Sheba represented a righteous king being recognised for his wisdom by distant and fantastically wealthy foreign rulers, demonstrating his importance and authority.

There were other ways that Charles could and probably did read his new zoological presents. But given his interest in Solomon and that his teachers and advisors associated camels with Sheba, it’s hard to imagine that the comparison didn’t cross his mind. It would also have been fantastically useful as yet another way of convincing his followers that they were participating in something special, and that their king was indeed a good one, who was guided by the wisdom of Solomon.

Connections like these are why I’m so interested in the role played by animals in medieval diplomacy (see also my ramblings on Charlemagne’s elephants). They bring out the importance of spectacle at court, as well as the significance of sources of knowledge of distant lands. For Emir Muhammad, the camels he sent had a completely different cultural significance and meaning. Yet despite the fact that he and Charles had minimal common ground in their comprehension of the camels, they could both understand their giving and receiving as a sign of good will and amity. Although we are allowed to suspect that it would probably have been for the best if Muhammad never found out that Charles had cast him as the Queen of Sheba in this spectacle.

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