Fashioning a Wardrobe in the Languages of God

S. J. Pearce on Medieval Poetry

A woman stands at the edge of the dirt road that heads out of the Spanish city of Córdoba to the south, holding her only son in her arms and bidding farewell to her husband. They exchange gifts and he heads off into the waning night. If this scene had taken place on one of the other roads leading out of the city, it would not have been cause for sadness. The man, a high-level political functionary, might have gone a dozen times with the court entourage to Madinat al-Zahra, the red-and-white palatine city eight kilometers due east, to serve the caliph as a consultant, a mediator, a teacher, and a courtier before returning home to his wife and their child. This goodbye, however, was more permanent and once the woman returned home she recorded the moment in verse:

Will her love remember his graceful doe,
her only son in her arms as he parted?
On her left hand he placed a ring from his right,
on his wrist she placed her bracelet.
As a keepsake she took his mantle from him,
And he in turn took hers from her.
Would he settle, now, in the land of Spain,
if its prince gave him half his kingdom?

—Peter Cole. The Dream of the Poem. Princeton: UP, 2007. 27.
Trans. Peter Cole

This fragment, originally written in Hebrew around the year 960, is the only record of this poet. If she ever composed another poem, it is lost.

The poet’s husband, a Berber Jew named Dunash ben Labrat, was an accomplished and controversial poet with a reputation for cultural and religious divisiveness. The native language of these poets was Arabic, but they wrote poetry in Hebrew, at least in part to prove that their sacred language could do everything that the divine language of their Muslim neighbors could. They were the first poets to take techniques that had been used only by Arabic-language poets—poetic tools such as rhyme and quantitative meter and metaphor through which poets could show off their technical skills—and adapt them for writing poetry in Hebrew. Although Dunash is credited with the innovation, his wife is seen as the more skillful practitioner, mimicking the formal elements of Arabic poetics more closely than any other writer in those early days.

Jews living in the Islamic world spoke Arabic although they did not believe, as their Muslim neighbors did, that it was the language that God himself spoke. They struggled to define their place in a world in which they shared their native tongue with a vision of God they did not accept as their own. At first they reacted by writing polemics that both praised the utility and beauty of the Hebrew language and criticized Islamic theology. Then they began explicitly to imitate the Arabic literary forms that were sources of cultural prestige in the urban centers they inhabited. Dunash, for example, moved with his poet wife to the Spanish city of Córdoba, where practitioners of various religions coexisted. There he became a courtier, operating under the patronage of Hasdai ibn Shaprut, one of the top Jewish advisers to the caliph, the political head of the western Islamic world. Even though he was not unique in being equally at home reading Hebrew and Arabic, Dunash was the first person to notice how closely the two were related. When he announced his discovery, some devout Jews—including many of his fellow courtiers in Córdoba—denounced him as a heretic for daring to compare their sacred Hebrew language to any other. Petty political battles became the proxy for their disputes over language and faith. Dunash won some, to be sure, his biggest victory coming when he convinced Hasdai to expel his chief rival from the court and tear down his house. But as the scene on the road from Córdoba tells us, he did not win them all. In the end, it came down to this: all the vicious spats over grammar, poetry, language, and God had led, inconceivably, to the hasty hand-off of jewelry and coats between husband and wife before Dunash was forced to flee for his life, his critics laughing.

The poem that remembers all of it by describing the sentiment and the logistics of trading a bracelet for a cloak was well liked by contemporaneous readers, circulating both orally and in writing. Yet we know little of its author, who is recognized only as the mysterious wife of a prominent courtier. The only record of her life exists in two surviving copies of this poem, which were discovered in the middle of the twentieth century. Since the poet’s biography is so vague, it might be imbued with any meaning that is significant in the moment. She has therefore come to stand for anything that a contemporary reader might like; her appeal is universal.

These two copies of her work survived in a remarkable cache of documents that is sometimes called an archive but might better be described as a massive recycling bin. It is customary in many Jewish communities, even today, not to throw out any paper with the name of God written on it. Instead, it is placed in a receptacle, most often a box, called a genizah. When the genizah box is full, someone carefully takes it to the cemetery and buries it; this is considered to be the only respectful way to dispose of the divine name. But instead of stashing only pages with the name of God written on them, one congregation of Jews sets aside anything written in Hebrew script, just in case. And because this community, like other Jewish communities in the Islamic world, wrote in Arabic using Hebrew letters rather than Arabic ones, a diverse range of documents ended up being put away in this genizah, from the expected and conventional—like prayer books, bibles, and works of theology—to the detritus of everyday life that makes the medieval world seem much less distant: secular love poetry like the work attributed to Dunash’s wife and to Dunash himself, personal and business letters, receipts, marriage and divorce decrees, travelogues, grocery lists, and even children’s schoolbooks with bored doodles and caricatures of their teachers scribbled in the margins. It also contained documents that illuminate the lives of medieval women who wrote poetry and headed households and businesses, as well as those who cooked and cleaned and who, when needed, leveraged the things that were their own—their jewelry and their garments—for self-sufficiency and to support their families.


The poem attributed to the wife of Dunash, most likely written at a difficult moment in her life, reflects the truth of an old Arabic proverb, one that may still be heard today as an admonition from jewelers from Syria to the Yemen: al-ḥadā’id li-l-awqāt al-shadīdah—“Bracelets are for hard times.” That is to say, even in dire times when currency might be rare or devalued and other tradable goods scarce, the precious metals that make up jewelry retain value. In the scene that plays out in this poem, the accessories that the poet gives to her husband are not mere tokens of memory, as she tells us. Rather more shrewd, she offers mementos with monetary value that Dunash could take with him into exile; these are exchanges that readers of the poem would have easily recognized, for many of them had done the same. Letters, property lists, and purchase orders from the Cairene archive-by-accident show all sorts of similar transactions. Surviving trousseaux lists name the objects—along with their size and monetary value—that belonged to women. These records show that women most often wore silver bracelets in pairs: not small ones on their wrists, but larger, heavier ones with more metal—and thus greater stores of value—at the thicker, upper part of their arms. In addition to being convenient monetary instruments, these pairs of bracelets were thought to communicate stoicism, elegance, and grace. The trousseaux lists and other documents attest to the observant poetic eye of Dunash’s wife. She riffs cleverly upon the image of a woman wearing two bracelets, one that readers would have recognized immediately. Instead of representing her poetic alter ego as wearing both of her bracelets, she splits that familiar image in half, like a separating couple. She hands him a bracelet and the reader is left knowing that she still has one with her: a token and an instrument of power as she begins her life alone. As she wonders in her poetic voice whether anything might be done to keep her husband from leaving their shared homeland, she acknowledges that he could not even accept half of Hasdai’s kingdom to stay; so he would take half his wife’s fortune to leave.

The exchange of cloaks, too, between husband and wife in the poem—“As a keepsake she took his mantle from him,/ and he in turn took hers from her”—is drawn from the lived practice of sharing coats within families and between married couples. Although both Jewish and Islamic law frown upon a range of sumptuary practices, everything from wearing unisex styles of clothing to cross-dressing, outerwear seems to have largely escaped notice and jurisdiction. Regardless of what any legal theory said, Jews living in the Islamic world regularly wore unisex coats and a married couple would often share one between them. An anonymous man, a rough contemporary of Dunash and his wife, wrote a letter begging the members of his community for help replacing his coat, a costly garment worth months of his salary. His had been stolen and his letter explains the consequences of his predicament for himself and for his wife, with whom he shared his cloak: “By the Torah of the living God, I do not possess another coat, nor does my wife, for going out in the street!” (S. D. Goitein. A Mediterranean Society, vol. 4. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000 reprint. 154). Even at the distance of a millennium, the doubled-down anguish of a poor man who had been robbed of his few possessions rings through in his petition for restitution. And so, even though Dunash’s wife, in her poem, describes the exchange of coats as sentimental tokenism, she is not sending her husband off into the great unknown with a coat simply to remind him of her. Instead, he leaves with a coat that will serve both as a memento and as a practical outer layer that he can reasonably wear in public.

Women and poets—sometimes in the same person—marshaled the resources they could to crisscross their pan-Mediterranean world, turning their wardrobes into stores of value and meaning, cloaking the astutely practical in the nakedly sentimental.


In the midst of all of these documentary sources that record the day-to-day life of Jews in the medieval Arab world from Córdoba to Cairo, it is worth invoking an Arabic saying. It is more common amongst wordsmiths than silversmiths and speaks to the truth of disillusionment rather than fact: aṭyab al-sh‘ir akdhabuhu, or, “the best part of the poem is its greatest lie.” Indeed, the best part of this poem—the fact that its author was a woman—may well be the greatest lie of all.

Her name is lost and the truth of the matter is that she might have been a literary invention. A man like Dunash ben Labrat most likely would have had a wife, who may have lived in Spain and North Africa, traveled the roads in and out of Córdoba, and owned clothing and jewelry that adorned her and served her well. Yet she may not have been a poet. If she did write this poem, she would have been unique as a woman writing poetry in Hebrew in the Middle Ages since other women-poets in the Islamic world wrote in Arabic. All we have, however, is the testimony of one scribe. When the scribe copied the poem onto a sheet of paper below one written by Dunash, he added the briefest of introductions: “And Dunash’s wife responded to him.” This scribe might have been recording reality, but he could just as easily have transmitted a legend he had heard or, thinking himself a sort of author, he might have introduced a fiction of his own imagining.

Yet the poem does record a tender and realistic goodbye between two long-dead lovers. Through images of the wardrobe drawn from real life, it speaks to its readers in an intelligible visual vernacular. A husband and wife exchanging their coats needn’t be a specific husband and wife bidding each other farewell, but rather a universal shorthand: a fare-thee-well and an expression of love. The figure of the wife addresses a universal set of concerns while walking a fine line between sentimentality and economic interest, her voice amplified by her place in the literary avant-garde of her day. The voice that speaks this poem is a silhouetted figure in a cloak and a bracelet standing at a real crossroads. But besides the fact that the poem is written in her voice and ascribed to her in an offhanded note, there is no reason to believe that she ever wrote or that she even existed at all. One final saying from the period brings the poet and her eye for details of the real firmly into the realm of the literary. Often, medieval writers of fiction would leave themselves an out if they told a story that might bring them political or social trouble: lo kayam ve-lo nivra’, or, “it never existed and it never was.” This may apply to the wife of Dunash ben Labrat. Her bracelets were the real material for her hard times, but this plucky, stoic poet, writing in her own resourceful voice, a bit of a sentimentalist and a bit of a clotheshorse, may never have existed as we imagine her.