The Kharjas: Early Lyrical Poetry in Spain.

Early Lyrical Poetry in Spain: The Kharjas.
The kharjas (jarchas in Spanish) are brief lyrical poems or songs from al-Andalus, the land in the Iberian Peninsula occupied or controlled by Muslims (or Moors, the term often used in Spanish history for the Muslims) from the 8th to 15th centuries. These poems are dated between the 11th and 13th centuries and are found appended to longer poems called a muwashshahas, written in classical Arabic or in Hebrew (the Jews constituting a significant minority in al Andalus during Moorish rule).

There are three kinds of kharjas: those written in colloquial or Andalusi Arabic (i. e. not classical), those written in Hebrew, and finally those containing words or phrases in early Romance together with Andalusi Arabic or Hebrew (some scholars call this combination “Mozarabic.” A Mozarab was a Christian living in al-Andalus). Numbering almost 70, it is this third kind that interests us because for a long time they were said to be the earliest evidence of poems in a Romance tongue. In view of subsequent challenges to this assertion, we’ll identify this third kind as Disputed Kharjas.

A Brief Historical and Social Context.
It will be clear from the above paragraphs that we are actually dealing with more than one language. To understand why, we should keep in mind that during the Middle Ages Spain, as a unified country, did not exist. The Iberian Peninsula (to give a more neutral term) was made up of different Christian and Muslim (Moorish) kingdoms with the former gradually expanding at the cost of the latter which, from the 13th to the 15th century, were reduced to one kingdom, that of Granada in the south.

Straddling the divide between Christians and the Muslims were the Jews, whose influence on both groups was profound. The Peninsula, then, was inhabited by three religions and was multilingual and multiracial: Arabic, Hebrew, and the Romance languages evolving out of Latin: Galician-Portuguese, Castilian and Catalan (not to mention local dialects such as Aragonese, and “Mozarabic,” a hybrid tongue combining Arabic and early Romance).

Awareness of this multilingual, multiracial make-up of the Peninsula is relevant when we consider that, in addition to the Disputed kharjas, two other groups of lyrical poems later emerged that reflected something of the linguistic pot that existed in the Middle Ages: 1. the cantigas de amigo in Galician-Portuguese (roughly between 1220 and 1350), and 2. the villancicos in Castilian (from the 15th century).

The Disputed Kharjas. Background History.
The existence of the Disputed kharjas and their significance were not recognized until 1948 when a Jewish scholar, Samuel Stern, studying in England (Oxford), published an article in French in a Spanish journal with the name Al-Andalus (a most appropriate coincidence given the multilingual, multiracial environment in which the kharjas were composed!)

The obstacle to an earlier recognition of their significance was that these Disputed kharjas were not written in Latin script but transcribed in Arabic or Hebrew. Since both Arabic and Hebrew omit vowels, this made the task of deciphering these refrains doubly difficult, and there have been numerous instances where scholars have resorted to conjecture when transcribing and deciphering these ancient songs.

The full impact of Stern’s discovery, however, came with the dating of the Disputed kharjas. The earliest –and one of the best known– must precede 1042, since it is appended to a Hebrew muwashshah that is a panegyric by a certain Yosef the Scribe to a man who died in that year (and Hebrew poetry at the time did not permit eulogies addressed to the dead).

Why was this important?
There are two reasons. 1. Up until the publication of Stern’s articles, it was believed that the earliest examples of lyrical poetry in Romance were those from Provençe (southern France), dating from around 1100. Suddenly, there was a radical challenge, the repercussions of which are still felt as scholars discuss and theorise on influences and sources, and a lot of academic mud has been slung as national sensitivities and scholarly reputations have been questioned.

2. It was not long before nationalistic and religious contamination set in. For example, the Disputed kharjas were seen as evidence of the persistence/ survival of pre-Islamic lyric verse, and evidence of Christian/Mozarabic culture. Their discovery, not long after the end of the brutal Spanish Civil War (1936-39), also fitted conveniently the ideological argument of General Franco’s Catholic regime that Spain had always been at the forefront of the battle against Islam and had always resisted the contagion of Muslim thought.

Where did these Disputed kharjas come from? It was quickly argued that these kharjas formed part of a popular, oral tradition of songs –which have not survived– sung by Christian (i. e. Mozarab) women while doing e. g. housework or at the communal washing place by a river etc. At some time, they were overheard by cultured Arab or Hebrew poets who, attracted perhaps by their freshness and spontaneity, “exited” their muwashshahas (kharja means “exit” or “outing”) with a kharja. Indeed, it has been argued that the muwashshahas were in fact “built on them (the kharjas)” (Deyermond 8).

Thematically, the Disputed kharjas deal overwhelmingly with love. It was quickly noted that in about 80% of the extant examples, the voice we hear is that of a young woman whose love life was a source of uncertainty or heartache. She revealed her desires, hopes, frustrations, fears, sickness, torment and so on.  Often she addressed another person seeking advice about what to do: her mother, a friend or friends –called hermana(s), literally sister(s). Other times she communicated her feelings directly to her lover. 

These thematic characteristics were then seized upon as being part of a larger European phenomenon and compared to similar lyrics sung by young women in other parts of Europe (e. g. France, Germany, Italy, Greece). And close to home many scholars called attention especially to the Galician-Portuguese cantigas de amigo. None of these other European songs appeared as early as the kharjas, but the fact that similar kinds of songs appeared in such divergent areas suggested a common experience and a similar way of conveying it. That experience happened to have been transcribed earlier in the Disputed kharjas in al-Andalus than in any other Romance tongue.

All this sounds plausible. BUT these arguments are largely conjectural and are influenced by or based on 1. nationalistic objectives which distort their meanings; 2. a faulty understanding of the texts thanks to paleographical inadequacies; 3. viewing the kharjas as complete poems in themselves (enthusiastic Hispanists started to divorce the kharjas from their muwashshahas soon after their discovery, as if they were independent pieces instead of seeing them as examples of poetic activity in a multilingual society).

These Euro or Hispanocentric arguments began to be challenged in the 1970s , and gathered force in the 1980s. Objections were based on 1. questions of rhyme, metrics and language (no Disputed kharja is written entirely in early Romance), and 2. on the lack, hitherto, of any “ancient Hispanic poetry” (Corriente 117) which could allow a comparison with these kharjas.

Furthermore, the argument for a similarity between the Disputed kharjas and other popular European lyrics began to unravel when it was demonstrated that there was nothing especially Christian/European in these kharjas to support the claim that they “were the earliest known traces of Romance lyrics” (Corriente 116). 

In addition, it had been argued –following Stern’s discovery– that the muwashshaha with their kharjas were a Hispano-Arabic invention from around 900 AD and that it was “the one Andalusi genre which has been enthusiastically claimed by Spanish scholars” (Labanyi 16). Subsequent research now suggests that the muwashshahas and the kharjas were, in fact, “by-products of Eastern Arabic literary models” (Corriente 116, 112) in which the final stanza –the equivalent of the kharja— introduced a “lighter and livelier style of folk poetry” (Corriente 110) aimed at “stylistic variation” (Corriente 117).

Argument against the “First Romance Lyrics” Interpretations.
[Note: in the following paragraph, all alphabetical and numeral references are taken from Federico Corriente’s excellent survey which concludes with a list of the Disputed kharjas from both Arabic (A) and Hebrew (H) sources, 43 Arabic and 26 Hebrew.]

One of the most telling arguments against the claim that the kharjas were the earliest examples of Romance lyrics is simply to consider the names of the lovers addressed or referred to by the female speaker: they are almost all of Muslim origin: Abulqasim (A 17), Abulhajjaj (A 19), Ibn Alhajib (A 30), Ibn Addayyan (H 1), Bairam (H 5), Ibn Muhajir (H 13). We also find the names of three eminent figures from the Old Testament, Ibrahim (A 1), Jonah (A 33), (Ishaq i. e. Isaac H 2), a text revered by Muslims and Jews. There are, also, two references to Sura Yasin (A 29, 30; the Surah Yasin is the 36th Surah of the Qur’an), Allah (A 27) and the semitic expressions ya rabbi and ya rab (Oh God, H 6, 9). Furthermore, the lover is regularly addressed in the Arabic habibi, while there are two Arabic titles: emir (A 43), sidi (lord A 20, 39, H 1, 11), and Cidello (H 3).

These details give weight, then, to Muslim and/or Hebrew compositions in which the composers incorporated early Romance words or phrases to mark a different linguistic register from that of the muwashshaha rather than an appropriation by these authors of indigenous folk songs sung by Christian/ Mozarab women. If it were a case of appropriation, we might expect the retention of the Christian names of those men addressed or referred to, or the use of perhaps amigo instead of habibi for lover, or other clear allusions to an indigenous, Christian heritage.

Tone of the Disputed kharjas.
The tone of these kharjas, especially those appended to Arabic muwashshahas is frequently suggestive, irreverent and/or sensually frank. Surprising perhaps, but not unusual. A similar tone can be found in female-voiced lyrics universally. The following from the Disputed kharjas will give some idea:

Come my lord, … come to me at night or else … I shall come to you (A 1); “Kiss me and lead me by the necklace, you with the little cherry mouth” (A 11); “Don’t bite me, my darling (A 23); “You came away with marks from biting” (A 26); “I would offer you my little mouth, red like cistus flowers” (A 20); “Kiss my little mouth … you will drink sweet juice from it” (A 25); “Little mouth like a necklace, sweet like honey, come, kiss me, my darling, come to me, join me in love, because I am dying” (A 36); “Mother, what good is the sura Yasin… Rather, if I am about to die, bring me Ibn Alhajib as a remedy and I shall be cured” (A 30); “Tell me, mother… do my relatives suspect that I fornicate? My love is of the kind that is paid in installments” (A 35).

The language used by the female voice is simple and direct, but its boldness and frankness suggest that the woman is not always the perplexed maiden simply seeking advice that some of these Disputed kharjas might convey. Indeed, it has been argued that these songs were “put deliberately into the mouths of lower-class young lovers” (Corriente 120), even possibly of female slaves who would be less inclined to use a more decorous, allusive language. [The term “female-voiced” has been used introduced at the end as a reminder that one of the much-discussed topics on this matter is whether these lyrics were composed by women or whether in fact the female voice was appropriated by a male composer. But that is another question and not the purpose of this post].

The following examples are from Corriente: the upper case signals romance-based words, the lower case represents Arabic or Hebrew words.

A 4: ALBO, qad min FOGORE,/ almudhi MEW DOLEDORE: PESED+AL arraqibE,/ ES TU+ STA NOKHTE amiri. You, the blond one, that’s enough burning [me with passion], you abuser, my tormentor; in spite of the guardian, be my prince tonight!

A 20: SI SABES, ya sidi,/ KAN BEBES MEW bassE!/ MA BOKELLA hamra/ +(D)dayfAREY kalwarsE. If you knew, my lord how many of my kisses you would drink! I would offer you my little mouth, red like cistus flowers.

A 25: amanE, ya habib,/ alwahsha ME+N FARAS!/ BEN, BEJA MA BOKELLA,/ LEW SUKKO TE+N BEBRAS. Mercy, my darling, you would make me grieve with your absence! Kiss my little mouth, handsome; you will drink a sweet juice from it.

A 36: BOKELLA+ al iqdE,/ DOLCE KOM+ ashshuhdE,/ BEN BEYJAME,/habib, ji indi,/ ADUNNE+M+ AMANDE,/ KE MOYROME. Little mouth like a necklace, sweet like honey, come, kiss me, my darling, come to me, join me in love, because I am dying.

A 38: MAMMA+ EST+ alghulam/ la bud kulla liyya,/ halal aw haram. Mother, this boy has to be mine, lawfully or unlawfully!

H 18: TANT AMARE, TANT AMARE,/ habib TANT AMARE,/ ENFERMERON WELYOS jidOS,/ YA DOLENT TAN MALE. [From] so much love, so much love, my darling, from so much love my healthy eyes became ill; they now ache so badly. [This is the earliest recorded song coming at the end of a Hebrew panegyric dated 1042.]

H 4: GARRIR BOS+EY YERMANELLAS,/KI+M KONTENER(D) MEW MALE,/SIN alhabib NON BIBREYO,/ AD OB L+ IREYDEMANDARE? I shall tell you, little sisters: who will hold back my illness? Without my darling I cannot live: where shall I go and find him?

H 9: BAY(D)SE MEW QORCON DE MIB,/ ya rab, SI SE ME TORNARAD?/ TAN MAL ME DOLED L+ alhabib!/ ENFERMO YED, KAND SANARAD? My heart is leaving me, oh God! Will he ever come back? My darling is hurting me so badly! [My heart] is ill, when will it be cured?

Corriente, Federico “The Kharjas: An Updated Survey of Theories, Texts and their Interpretations,” Romance Philology, Vol. 63, No. 1, (2009), 109-29.
Cummins, John G The Spanish Traditional Lyric Oxford, New York: Pergamon Press, 1977.
Deyermond, A. D. A Literary History of Spain: The Middle Ages. London, New York 1971.
Klinck, Anne L and Rasmussen eds. Medieval Woman’s Song: Cross Cultural Approaches. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
Labanyi, Jo Spanish Literature: A Very Short Introduction Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010.