Two poets from medieval Spain

The great medieval Jewish poets of Spain are part and parcel of our Jewish heritage.

English Poet (photo credit: Courtesy)
English Poet
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The great medieval Jewish poets of Spain are part and parcel of our Jewish heritage; names like Dunash ibn Labrat, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Moses ibn Ezra, Samuel Hanagid and Yehuda Halevi immediately come to mind. However, it comes as no surprise that all of them were men.
What is surprising is that during this period, there were numerous Muslim women whose poetry has been preserved. Although Muslims refer to the Jews as ahl al-kitab or “people of the book,” Muslim women seem to have been more successful in creating lasting poetic works.
It is rather difficult to account for this discrepancy, for it seems odd to imagine that Muslim women in medieval Spain were far more educated than their Jewish counterparts. Arabic became the lingua franca following the Muslim conquest of the country in 711. When Jewish poets began to compose in Arabic and later in Hebrew, were the women entirely excluded? There are very few extant poems written by Jewish women dating to this period. Although only a fraction of all poems from that time have survived, this does not mean more were not written. The poems that are available are of a high quality, but the problem of quantity cannot be ignored.
Kasmunah (“little charming one” or “one with a beautiful face”) of Andalusia in southern Spain was the daughter of Isma’il ibn Bagdala “the Jew.” Her Arabic verses were included in a 15th-century anthology of women’s verses (compiled by an Egyptian). Little is known about her; there are debates as to whether she lived in the 11th or 12th century. Some of those favoring the earlier date contend that she was none other than the daughter of Samuel Hanagid, who was also known as ibn Nagrella (he indeed had a daughter). The assumption is that Bagdala and Nagrella are similar enough to have been confused.
At any rate, Kasmunah’s father taught her by means of intellectually creative collaboration. He composed two lines; she needed to respond in kind.
The style he chose is known as muwwashah, a rather difficult genre of poetry in which both he and his protégé excelled. Reading her verses reveals a tremendous originality and expertise in Arabic poetry, as well as the gentleness of this cultured woman.
The wife of Dunash ibn Labrat lived at the end of the 10th century; very little is known about her. Her husband was born in Fez, studied in Baghdad with Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon and spent time in Cordoba in the court of the eminent diplomat Hasdai ibn Shaprut. Her name is not recorded anywhere, but this does not detract from the fact that her erudition and expertise in Hebrew poetry are astounding.
In truth, the scholars of medieval Hebrew poetry, such as Haim Shirman and Ezra Fleischer, were convinced that this was a field entirely reserved for men. However, a series of discoveries of fragments from three different collections in the Cairo Geniza produced evidence to the contrary.
In 1947, a fragment of a poem was found and published by Nehemia Allony, who surmised that it dealt with a bride and groom, or possibly a separation. In 1971, the tables turned when a complete copy of this poem appeared (albeit with the lines in the incorrect order); the missing lines revealed that it referred to a couple and their child. The husband had left his beloved wife and child behind in Spain, and their future was unclear. A third discovery solved the mystery of the poem’s authorship because of its header: “from the wife of Dunash ibn Labrat to him.” This fragment included a second poem written by the absentee husband, defending himself and professing his love to “an erudite woman like you” (see Ezra Fleischer, “About Dunash Ibn Labrat and his wife and son,” Jerusalem Studies in Hebrew Literature, 5 (1984) in Hebrew).
This detective work revealed beautiful poetry and the correct identity of the sources; it reflected the talents of the eminent poet’s wife as well as that of her husband. Mr. and Mrs. ibn Labrat, although separated, and Kasmunah were creative and impressive poets who made important contributions to the medieval Spanish literary heritage.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history and dean at the Schechter Institute, as well as academic editor of the journal Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental Jewry and on Jewish women.